Category Archives: biography

Begam Samrū: A Most Unusual Ruler

My historian brother has been doing a lot of research on Mercenaries and Military Manpower in world history. He’s started a blog on the topic, but has been too busy with other projects (and too fond of footnotes) to post much yet. When I stumble across new sources that might interest him (like my previous two blogposts), I let him know. Here’s one I came across in an unlikely source, the venerable Archives of Asian Art, which has finally made its debut in JSTOR. Of course, he had already heard of the central figure, but the Wikipedia entry for her is so long-winded, poorly written, and poorly documented that I thought I would post her biography as presented by UC Berkeley art historian Alka Hingorani, in her article entitled “Artful Agency: Imagining and Imaging Begam Samrū” in Archives of Asian Art LIII(2002-2003):54-70.

Begam Samrū was born Farzānā, in 1750/51 C.E., to an impoverished Arab nobleman who died when she was still very young. Events and circumstances led her and her mother to Delhi, battle-weary in the mid-eighteenth century. They arrived about 1760 C.E., and from all accounts her early years in Delhi were spent at a courtesan’s home, where she reputedly grew into an exceptionally beautiful and talented woman. The second half of the eighteenth century in Delhi has been referred to as “gardi ka waqt,” or the “time of troubles.” Nādir Shāh of Persia and Ahmad Shah Abdālī of Afghanistan had mauled the Mughal Empire and the Maratha Confederacy, and by the 1760s Delhi was licking its wounds. A substantial indigenous resurgence seemed unlikely. The Jats were baiting the Marathas, and the British were trying to keep both in check. Several smaller powers were beginning to elbow for space as the larger ones lost control of the north Indian region. Increasingly, the Mughals, Marathas, and British were finding it necessary to share power with chiefdoms. In this widening field the smaller contestants whose military means were inadequate to their ambitions often had to resort to foreign military adventurers.

General Walter Reinhardt, Austrian mercenary and free lance, was one such adventurer. Having variously served the British, the French, and the Jats, he was desperately seeking employment in the Mughal court, since his last service to the French had left the British hot in his pursuit. With four battalions and a few cannons at his disposal, he was offering his services to the nearest employer of ample purse and sufficient political clout to afford protection against the British: a fairly typical scenario for the time. While in Delhi he apparently took a fancy to Farzānā, who became his concubine, or begam, as she chose to style herself. Their association appears to have been intense, both personally and politically, and lasted until his death in 1778. By this time “Le Sombre,” the sobriquet conferred upon the saturnine Reinhardt by earlier associates, had become Indianized to “Samrū.” Upon his death Samrū ki begam, “the wife of Samrū,” took his sobriquet as her name and began to be called Begam Samrū. This slippage of identity, made possible by her intimate association with Reinhardt, was facilitated by their obvious close military and political partnership. At the court of the Mughal emperor, Shāh Ālam, she had taken active part—directly and indirectly—in the maneuvering for power, in order to benefit her “husband.” They had shared years in camp as he led his forces against the Marathas and other powers, and she was his ally—a brave soldier and a crafty strategist—as much as his mate. Begam Samrū also enjoyed enormous favor at Shāh Ālam’s court for another critical reason: on several occasions in the 1780s she had acted to save his life, often at some risk to her own. On one occasion she secured his release from Ghulām Qādir, the Rohilla chief, who had gained control of the palace and had imprisoned and tortured the old emperor. Another rescue took place when the blind and enfeebled emperor, who had joined the battlefield himself to bring a rebellious vassal to heel, was almost defeated due to indiscipline amongst his own forces. General laxity and indiscipline in the imperial army had endangered the emperor’s life more than once, and Begam Samrū had repeatedly brought her troops and artillery to his rescue. Considering these heroic benefactions, even though Walter Reinhardt had left a grown son—Zafaryāb Khan—by another Muslim woman, Begam Samrū’s position as heir to his authority was never in serious jeopardy.

Her ascendancy was aided by Zafaryāb Khan s own reputation as a man of weak intellect. He was so little regard ed that his father s troops did not recognize him even as a nominal chief, pledging their allegiance to Begam Samrū instead. The Begam came into her own at this point. She swore continued allegiance to the Mughal emperor, who conferred upon her in return the principality of Sardhanā, slightly northeast of Delhi. This was a jāgīr (“principality”) of small villages, which yielded substantial revenue. It was, from all accounts, very tightly controlled by the Begam, whose presence enhanced its political importance. William Francklin (1763–1839) paid handsome tribute to the Begam’s administrative acumen in his writings in the 1790s, when she had held her jāgīr for about fifteen years:

An unremitting attention to the cultivation of the lands, a mild and upright administration, and care for the welfare of the inhabitants, has enabled this small tract to yield a revenue of ten lakhs of rupees per annum (up from six)…. A fort near the town contains a good arsenal and foundry for cannon. Five battalions of disciplined sepoys, commanded by Europeans of different countries…and about 40 pieces of cannon of various calibres, constitute the force kept up by the Begam Samrū. With these and about 200 Europeans, principally employed in the service of artillery, she is enabled to maintain a respectable position among the neighbouring powers.

As John Lall also asserts, “It was a remarkable achievement for a single woman, more than ten years after Najāf Khān’s (her protector’s) death when Shāh Ālam was being blown like a weathercock with every change in the precarious balance of factional power. To be useful to him, she had to be capable not just of maintaining herself in power but also of intervening effectively in the affairs of the time.” In her long career she overcame many adversities, including a near-revolt among her troops brought about by her second, secret marriage to a Frenchman, an insurrection provoked by her stepson, imprisonment from which she was rescued by an old lover, and the vicissitudes of endlessly shifting political alliances with their attendant suspicion and deceits. Along the way she converted to Roman Catholicism, joined hands with the Marathas, then with the French, and finally in 1805 forged an alliance with the British, a little after it became clear that the Sikhs under Ranjīt Singh would not prevail against English might. Her reliance on the Sikhs for longer than politically warranted was one of her few miscalculations, but even from that she recovered quickly enough. Fortuitous and timely changes in power hierarchies often worked to her advantage, but largely it was her personal charisma, military prowess, administrative and political acumen, her generosity and her loyalty no less than her reputed ruthlessness, her guile and cunning, that allowed Begam Samrū to rule more or less absolutely and “brilliantly” (a word that all her biographers have used) over her small principality.Yet her life was altogether more interesting, I think, than even the events of history that made it possible. She died in 1836, at the age of eighty-five. She left behind no personal chronicles: neither auto biography nor personal correspondence to augment and correct a history told by others. But a few paintings remain, as windows into a life lived fully by any account.

They certainly don’t make them like that anymore, male or female.

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The Korean War as Mao’s Triumph

From: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, by David Halberstam (Hyperion, 2007), pp. 634, 636, 638:

Because the Chinese viewed Korea as a great success, Mao became more than ever the dominant figure in Chinese politics. He had shrewdly understood the domestic political benefits of having his country at war with the Americans. As he had predicted, the war had been a defining moment between the old China and the new one, and it had helped isolate those supporters of the old China—those Chinese who had been connected to Westerners—and turned them into enemies of the state. Many were destroyed—either murdered or ruined economically—in the purges that accompanied and then followed the war. From then on there was no alternative political force to check Mao; he had been the great, all-powerful Mao before the war began, and now, more than ever, his greatness was assured in the eyes of his peers on the Central Committee, who were no longer, of course, his peers. Before the war he had been the dominant figure of the Central Committee, a man without equals; afterward he was the equivalent of a new kind of Chinese leader, a people’s emperor. He stood alone. No one had more houses, more privileges, more young women thrown at him, eager to pay him homage, more people to taste his food lest he be poisoned at one of his different residences. No one could have been contradicted less frequently. The cult of personality, which he had once been so critical of, soon came to please him, and in China his cult matched that of Stalin.

There was in all this a scenario not just for political miscalculation but for something darker, for potential madness with so much power vested in one man, a man to whom so much damage had been done earlier in his life. That was always a critical element of what happened next: Mao as a young man, not unlike Stalin, had been hunted too long and too relentlessly, as it were, by so many enemies; the deepest, most unwavering kind of paranoia grew out of that past and was the most natural part of his emotional and political makeup. At the same time he had become the principal architect of an entirely new political economic-social system. He existed and operated in a nation without any personal limits on him and yet where everyone could be an enemy. Both his power and his paranoia were without limits. He who had been for so long the ultimate outsider now lived a life of imperial grandiosity. He no longer needed to listen to others; if the others differed from him on issues, it was because they did not hold China’s welfare as close to their hearts as he did, and were perhaps enemies of his and of China as well—the two he judged to be the same.

He was sure that he was right on all issues—his words as they escaped his mouth were worthy of being codified as laws. China, he had decided, his China, was ready to rush into modernity—the Great Leap Forward, it was called, and the burden of turning a poor agricultural society into a modern industrial state virtually overnight fell on the peasants. If he had once been uniquely sensitive to their needs, more tuned to them as a political force than anyone else in the leadership, he now seemed prepared to put the entire burden of modernization, brutal though it would be, on them for his larger purpose. His new China would, if need be, be built on their backs. It was their job to make his dreams, no matter how unlikely, come true. The Great Leap Forward was probably the first example of a turn toward madness: as it went on, the peasants suffered more and more, under growing pressure to produce more agriculturally than ever before, even as there were conflicting pressures—for them to convert to a kind of primitive industrial base, as if there were to be a small foundry in every Chinese backyard. The Great Leap Forward was always more vision than reality. Figures on agricultural production were severely doctored to make the program look like a success. Almost everyone in the bureaucracy knew that it was largely a failure—the phrase that the distinguished Yale historian Jonathan Spence used was “catastrophic hardship”—but for a long time no one dared challenge Mao. The genuine independence of the rest of the Central Committee seemed in decline; the power and authority of Mao in a constant ascent. His will had become the national will; his truths were everyone’s truths. He was never wrong. If he said that night was day, then night had become day.

Because his hold over the government was so complete, because his need to dominate every decision was so total, he forced anyone who was a potential critic or dissenter, no matter how essentially loyal, into the most dangerous role. Those who challenged him were not merely wrong, they could become, if the issue were serious enough, enemies of the people. Those who thought they were his friends and peers and old colleagues were, it turned out, badly mistaken; they were his friends and allies only as long as they agreed with him on all issues all the time. No one suffered more than one of his oldest allies, Marshal Peng. He was a simple man who had always known his limits and thus his place, a true Communist, a man who always deferred to Mao on politics. But Peng was also a proud man, every bit as confident of his sense of the peasants’ welfare. Peng became a dissenter almost involuntarily—almost, it seemed, as if Mao wanted a break with him, wanted to turn on him and make him an enemy. By 1959, the early results of the Great Leap Forward were in and China was in the midst of a terrible famine. Yet ever higher agricultural yields were being reported. Almost , every senior official understood this—that the chairman’s Great Leap was buttressed by lies and falsified statistics, but no one dared take him on.

Finally Peng did. He was by then the minister of defense …

By the time he died from his beatings, he had been interrogated 130 times. As Mao destroyed Peng, he destroyed much of what had been the best and most idealistic part of the Chinese revolution, turning his government in the process into one where only his own monomania could flourish.

This book has been a good read in parts, but I’m more impressed by Halberstam’s storytelling than by his scholarship. The major strengths, as far as I can see, are (1) his many gripping accounts of the fighting, based on interviews with survivors; (2) helpful maps; and (3) his incorporation of much new research, especially that based on recent access to Chinese archives. Otherwise, he just seems to be digesting a lot of secondary sources. Moreover, much of his very extended political spin (all Democrats, good; all Republicans, bad; anticommunism, worse than communism) is both tedious and tendentious, and his handling of sources often seems rather sloppy, as does his handling of lesser-known Sinitic names (like Han Liqin). The 669 pages of text contain no source citations whatsoever. Instead, endnotes list page numbers, quoted passages, and short reference citations.

However, in the passage cited above and elsewhere in the chapter, Halberstam quotes the words of Jonathan Spence, whose name appears neither in the bibliography nor in any endnote. In fact, there are no notes at all for pages 631–647, which includes the entirety of Chapter 53, Section 11, “The Consequences.” Readers who do a little extra research on their own are thus left to assume that Halberstam’s insights into the consequences for Mao perhaps come from somewhere in the 208 pages of Spence’s 1999 Mao Zedong, leavened with who-knows-what.

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Mao as MacArthur, Peng as Ridgway

From: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, by David Halberstam (Hyperion, 2007), pp. 506-509, 512-513:

If politics, as Mao believed, had its special truths that they knew better than anyone else, then military men like Peng Dehuai, political though they also were, knew that the battlefield had its truths as well. The political and military truths had dovetailed perfectly during the Chinese civil war, but they would separate in Korea, where Chinese troops in the eyes of most Koreans would be simply another foreign army and where the appearance of Chinese soldiers would have its own colonial implications.

After the battles along the Chongchon, Mao was ever more confident; Marshal Peng on the other hand was aware that much of his success had stemmed from the fact that the Americans had stupidly stumbled into a trap. He was concerned as his troops headed south; he had no air cover, and his logistical limitations were clear to him from the start. In Mao’s mind, however, the Americans had behaved as he had predicted, as capitalist pawns pressed reluctantly into an unwanted war. There were times now, as the Chinese moved south and Mao pressed for a more aggressive strategy, that Peng would shake his head, turn to his aide, Major Han Liquin [sic (prob. Liqin); “Major Liquin” (rather than Han), p. 515], and complain about Mao becoming drunk with success. In Peng’s much more conservative view, there had already been serious signs of the difficulties ahead. Just feeding his vast army was a problem—in much of December they had gotten by subsisting largely on rations that the Americans had left behind, but their troops were now, he felt, half-starved….

But as the Americans retreated down the long, thin peninsula, the Chinese began to experience some of the very problems that had frustrated their enemies—most particularly the problem of extended supply lines in a country with primitive roads and rail systems. Because they lacked air and sea power, this was a significantly more serious problem for them. When the Americans had moved north, they had been able to use trucks and trains without fear of being attacked from the air. They could, if necessary, transport badly needed ammo and food by air and sea. Not only did the Chinese have far fewer motorized vehicles to supply a vast army, but the trucks and trains were a perfect target for the ever stronger American air wing. It was Mao’s turn now to be distanced from the battlefield, and to see it, as MacArthur had, not as it actually was, but as he wanted it to be in his mind. Mao had misread the easy early victory up north, even as some of his commanders understood why it might not happen so readily again. As the historian Bin Yu noted, Mao now “encouraged by China’s initial gains began to pursue goals that were beyond [his] force’s capabilities.” That placed the burden of dealing with reality squarely on Peng’s shoulders.

In away Peng was an almost perfect counterpart to Ridgway—they could not have been more similar in what drove them and the way they saw and handled their own men. It would not be hard to imagine some switch in ancestry and an American version of Peng commanding the UN forces, and Ridgway, in a Chinese incarnation, the Chinese. Like Ridgway, Peng was a soldier’s soldier, unusually popular with his men, because he was sensitive to their needs….

He was straightforward and no less blunt than Ridgway. It amused him when some of his former colleagues in what had been in the beginning a peasant army began to take on airs once they defeated the Nationalists. Peng still preferred to bathe in cold water, even when hot water was available, because he had always done so, and because this was what peasants did. In his lifestyle he preferred an almost monastic simplicity, and was uneasy with unwanted creature comforts….

Peng was a good deal shrewder than some of the other people in the politburo gave him credit for. He had never been fooled by his early success up along the Chongchon. Even before the war began, he had believed that, given the unusual nature of the Korean peninsula, the opposing armies would have a terrible time getting supplies to either end of the country. “Korea,” he had told his staff before the war began, “will be a battle of supply.” That was why he argued successfully with Mao that when they hit the Americans all-out for the first time, they should do it from positions as far north as possible….

He was furious when both the Russians and North Koreans argued strongly in December that his troops should pursue the Americans more aggressively. The Russians were not putting their men into the field, and as for the North Koreans, he was bailing them out from their own incredible mistakes and poor leadership. He hated the pressure they put not so much on him, but on Mao, to move more rashly, the implication being that the Chinese were showing the world that they were not as good Communists, or as brave as Russians might have been in the same circumstances….

The idea that the Russians might think the Chinese timid appalled Mao. The balance between the two countries might change significantly in the next decade—as Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev started a de-Stalinization campaign and the Chinese claimed the mantle of Communist purists—but at that point, China was still the untested junior partner, and the Russians still had the right to judge the Chinese. Thus, it was easy for the Russians to goad Mao. Russian representatives in Beijing kept pressuring Mao to pursue the enemy. So too did Kim Il Sung. He met with Peng at his headquarters and asked him to pursue the Americans more audaciously.

Peng controlled his temper. The Americans were not actually defeated, he said. They had held their army together better than Kim realized. They might simply be trying to lure the Chinese too far south, so that they could strike back with another amphibious landing (a not so subtle reminder of mistakes made in the past). Still, the retaking of Seoul seemed like a significant propaganda victory, and there were huge rallies in China celebrating its recapture. In late January, Mao cabled Peng with his directives for the next campaign. In the process, Mao suggested, Peng’s forces would wipe out twenty to thirty thousand enemy soldiers. It was as if the chairman had not heard a word Peng had said in the last few weeks, caught up as he was in his own dreams of glory.

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Where Gandhi Learned His Methods

From Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Emperor, by Alex von Tunzelmann (Picador, 2008), pp. 24-26:

ON 2 OCTOBER 1869, A SON WAS BORN INTO A MIDDLE-CLASS family in Gujarat, a collection of princely states under British authority on the western coast of India. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had an ordinary childhood, culminating, as ordinary childhoods often do, in a teenage rebellion. This revealed a boy whose desire to experiment was usually halted by an immobilizing timidity in the actual act of defiance. He tried smoking and stole gold from his family to finance it; but this upset him morally, and so he stopped. Though from a strictly vegetarian family, he tried eating meat; but this upset him physically, and then morally as well, and then he dreamed of a live goat trapped in his stomach, bleating, so he stopped that too. Once he was egged on to visit a prostitute, but stood in the brothel having a crisis of confidence until the woman shouted at him to go away. On another occasion, he and a cousin ventured into the jungle to kill themselves by overdosing on datura, the narcotic seeds of the thorn apple; but, once they found the plant, they lost their nerve.

This boy’s family was reasonably well-off and of a middling but respectable caste. Hindu society had been divided for over seventeen hundred years into four main castes, reflecting second-century social groups: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants) and Sudras (farmers). Within each of these were hundreds of minute subdivisions, and below them a mass of outcastes, or “Untouchables”—those unfortunates who, condemned by the bad karma of previous incarnations, were destined to spend their lives sweeping, begging, scrubbing latrines and cleaning up corpses. The Gandhi family were Vaishyas, and within that were of the Bania subdivision. Banias were notorious for being hard-bargaining salesmen, a trait which young Mohan evidently inherited and would one day apply to spiritual and political ends with unprecedented effect.

Mohan’s rebellion was perhaps more unusual because the supposed cure for youthful misbehavior had already been administered. Karamchand and Putliba Gandhi had already married their thirteen-year-old son to a girl from a staunchly religious family. The girl who had been chosen, Kasturbai Makanji (known according to local tradition as Kasturba later in life, when she became matriarch of the household), was also just thirteen.

During daylight hours, etiquette decreed that Mohan and Kasturbai should ignore each other completely. Even an affectionate word between husband and wife was considered taboo. As darkness fell, they were left to their own devices, though neither had much idea what those should be. Mohan went to the bazaar to buy pamphlets, hoping to learn about his conjugal rights and duties. He was taken with the concept of fidelity and decided it should be his task to extract this from Kasturbai. He told her that she could no longer leave the house without his consent.

But, despite her youth, Kasturbai had already mastered the most effective technique available to women who live in extremely restrictive societies: that of passive resistance. She was a devout Hindu from a very traditional background and would not openly disobey her husband. Instead, she found a loophole.

Mohan’s mother asked Kasturbai to accompany her to the temple every day. Because this request was made in the daytime, when the young spouses were not supposed to communicate, Kasturbai was unable to ask Mohan’s permission. To disobey the command of the matriarch, on the other hand, would have been a terrible sin. So Kasturbai went with Putliba to the temple and returned to have her first fight with her husband, which she won by the sheer power of logic. Mohan was forced to remove the restrictions he had placed on Kasturbai.

This small incident would hardly be worthy of note, except for the fact that it formed the basis for Gandhi’s entire political method. In later years, when he found that he was at a disadvantage being an Indian in a white world, he would remember and develop the tactic of a woman in a man’s world. All Gandhi’s most famous tactics—passive resistance, civil disobedience, logical argument, nonviolence in the face of violence, emotional blackmail—had come from Kasturbai’s influence. He freely admitted this: “I learned the lesson of nonviolence from my wife.”

This, I regret to say, is my last excerpt from one of the best books I’ve read in quite a while. Von Tunzelmann is both a wonderful storyteller and a diligent researcher. (In that she is the equal, in my estimation, of Barbara Tuchman, one of my all-time favorite narrators of history; and I hope she already has another manuscript in the works.) In my many excerpts, I have excised all the endnote references, leaving no indication that supporting notes, maps, and glossaries consume almost 20% of a book nearly 500 pages long.

My historian brother has done a lot of research on Gandhi and is very critical of him, as are many revisionist historians. Von Tunzelmann also dishes plenty of dirt on Gandhi (and the other principal actors), while crediting him with two outstanding achievements: launching an effective campaign of nonviolence with the Salt March in 1930 and dampening communal violence in Bengal during the partition in 1947, a partition that he fervently opposed but unwittingly abetted. Between those two events, many of his efforts were irrelevant, at best, and counterproductive, at worst.

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Truman: The WYSIWYG President

From: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, by David Halberstam (Hyperion, 2007), pp. 203-205:

Truman was an easy man to underestimate. He lacked one of the great strengths of the Roosevelt persona: to a nation accustomed to a presidential voice that had been warm, confident, aristocratic, and altogether seductive, Truman’s voice was a distinct disappointment, flat and tinny, with little emotional intimacy. His speeches were uninspiring—blunt and oddly without nuance. Some advisers suggested that Truman try to speak more like Roosevelt, and make his speeches more conversational, but he was shrewd enough to know that that was the wrong path, that he could not emulate the great master. All he could do was be himself and hope that the American people would not judge him for what he was not. He was aware that the comparisons with Roosevelt would be unfavorable at first, and they were. In the beginning, he was an easy target for political jokes, and there was often a cruel edge to them. “To err is Truman,” said the acid-tongued Martha Taft, wife of Robert Taft, a key Republican senator. “I’m just mild about Harry” went another. A favorite of the moment, wrote the columnist Doris Fleeson, was “I wonder what Truman would do if he were alive.” “Poor Harry Truman. And poor people of the United States,” wrote Richard Strout, in The New Republic.

Truman became president when he was sixty years old. He was a late bloomer of acceptable but not overweening ambition. His people were farmers and he had done his share of farming as a boy, and in 1948 he had delighted Midwest crowds—his support there was one of the keys to his surprise victory—by telling them that he could seed a 160-acre wheat field “without leaving a skip.” He had plowed the old-fashioned way, he added—four Missouri mules, not one of these fancy tractors. In his senior year of high school, through no fault of their own, the Trumans’ farm had failed and all chance of a college education for Harry had disappeared. He tried for West Point, his one shot at a free education, but was turned down because of his poor eyesight. (He was blind as a mole, he noted later in life.) His one entrepreneurial attempt, to run a haberdashery shop, lasted a mere three years and ended in failure. He spent much of his time trying to prove to his ever dubious mother-in-law, who came from one of Independence’s first families, that he was worthy of the hand of her daughter, that Bess Wallace had not married down. Here success eluded him; he proved better at making the case for his intrinsic value to millions of fellow Americans than to Madge Gates Wallace. He arrived in the Senate in 1934, in his fiftieth year, relatively late in life, as the sparklingly honest representative of the unusually corrupt political machine of Boss Tom Pendergast. It was as if his special assignment within the Pendergast organization had always been to bring it some degree of honor and legitimacy. He was a small-town man with small-town virtues. For much of his life, he wore a triple-band gold Mason’s ring and a small lapel button that showed he had served in World War I. He was comfortable in the world of small-town lodges, and was a member of the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Moose, and the Elks.

But a life filled with a curious blend of disappointments and relatively few successes (at least on the scale of most men who attain the presidency) had created its own set of strengths. “I liked what I saw. He was direct, unpretentious, clear thinking and forceful,” General Omar Bradley wrote after their first meetings. He was not much given to self-deception and there was little artifice to him. He was hardworking, and always well prepared. He did not waste other people’s time, nor did he want them to waste his. In contrast to Roosevelt (who loved to play games with people even when he didn’t need to), Truman was comparatively simple and significantly less manipulative. What you saw, by and large, was what you got. George Marshall had always been uneasy with Roosevelt and some of the games he played with his top advisers. There had been one unfortunate moment when the president had tried verbal intimacy with Marshall, a man who thought the more formal the relationship with a politician, the straighter it was likely to be. Roosevelt called him by his first name, the first step in what was clearly to be a process of seduction. He immediately understood his own mistake by the coolness it generated. It was General or General Marshall thereafter, not George. Marshall for that reason clearly preferred Truman. There were fewer political land mines around.

In the Senate Truman had been all too aware of his own limitations. A great many of his colleagues were better educated, wealthier, and more successful; they knew worlds of privilege and sophistication he could only guess at. As one of his high school friends, Charlie Ross, later a star reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and eventually his press secretary, said of him, “He came to the Senate, I believe, with a definite inferiority complex. He was a better man than he knew.” America, at the time he assumed the presidency, was changing rapidly, becoming infinitely more meritocratic, driven by powerful egalitarian forces let loose by World War II and new political benefits that went with them, like the GI Bill, which allowed anyone who had been in the military to go to college. Truman, by contrast, was a product of a far less egalitarian America, which had existed at the turn of the century, one where talented men and women did not always attain careers that reflected their abilities and their ambition.

I am afraid we are now back to being a far less egalitarian America, at least by this measure. It has been two decades (1988–2008) since we had anyone but an Ivy Leaguer as president—and we just elected another one.

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Baciu’s Early Exile Network

From Mira, by Ştefan Baciu (Honolulu: Editura Mele, 1979 [also Bucuresti: Editura Albatros, 1998], p. iii (my translation):

I dedicate this “Double Autobiography” to our Brazilian friends, departed but always present:

and to those in Hispanic America, just as present:

and to the memory of our friends:

    Grigore Cugler/“Apunake” (d. in Lima)
    Mircea Popescu (d. in Rome)
    Horia Tănăsescu (d. in San Francisco)
    Ion Oană-Potecaşu (d. in São Paulo)
    N. I. Herescu (d. in Zurich)
    Alexandru Busuioceanu (d. in Madrid)
    Aron Cotruş (d. in California)

It is perhaps not too surprising that the Romanian exiles are not well represented in Wikipedia. Baciu himself has a longer biography in Spanish Wikipedia than in either Romanian or English. Exiles tend to fall between the cracks. Who feels responsible for documenting their lives, people in their countries of exile or the ones they left behind? In the case of literary exiles, it depends who reads their work. I believe that Baciu devoted half of his own separate volume of memoirs (Praful de pe toba) to sketches of his old mentors and colleagues precisely in order to ensure that they would not be entirely forgotten.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who just passed away, spent time in both domestic internal and foreign exile. The English translations of his early classics like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, Cancer Ward, and August 1914 had a major influence on my understanding of what the Soviet system was all about, an understanding that was reinforced and enriched by my year in Romania in 1983-84. (I did not read The Gulag Archipelago, but have blogged passages of several books about Gulags more recently.) Solzhenitsyn is not regarded quite the same way in his country of exile as in his country of origin, and his obsessions also evolved differently at home and abroad. He lived more than two lives, perhaps even as many as nine.

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On Limiting the Misfortune One Causes Others

I have lived in this same bunkhouse for most of my career in San’ya, sharing a room with six others and separated from them by a single curtain. The manager who sat at the front desk when I moved in has already departed this world, having succumbed to liver cancer. I suppose I can number myself among the old-timers at this doya [ドヤ].

I can’t say that life here has been all that comfortable, but I’ve made an effort to develop something resembling affection for the destiny that has landed me in this place. This is how I look at it: What would have happened if by some mistake I’d remained stuck in a job with an ordinary firm? Unable to resist the all the static around me, I probably would have gotten married and had a family. Yet would such a life course really have been better than my life here in a doya? I think not. I doubt very much that I could have maintained my mental equilibrium had I been placed in those circumstances.

I am a vessel that was made to hold nothing more than my own body and soul. I have been quite incapable of shouldering any other burden than these. My psyche would have been crushed by any added weight. The consequence would have been not just my mental breakdown and a life of confinement but also the certain misfortune visited on family members as a result of my breakdown. At the very least, then, I’ve been able to prevent myself from becoming the source of other people’s unhappiness. Those who are made like me or who have turned out like me would surely have ended up leading the kind of life I’m leading in the sort of place I’m living in, regardless of the era. Yet might I not take secret pride in the fact that I have been able to limit the misfortune I’ve caused others to the bare minimum? (In the case of my parents it really can’t be helped.) This is how I sometimes view things. At other times, when I’m in a more positive mood, I fancy that I have happened upon a life here that quite agrees with me. There is nothing to add or detract, and I really have no cause for dissatisfaction.

I have always tried to steer my thoughts in this direction. I intend to stay the course. If possible, I’d like to remain lost in these thoughts and slide as if in a trance toward death. For someone like me, who is on the threshold of old age, such a wish is akin to a prayer of supplication.

No matter what the future holds, I am determined not to harbor any bitterness toward the fate that has led me to this place.

SOURCE: A Man with No Talents: Memoirs of a Tokyo Day Laborer, by Ōyama Shirō, trans. by Edward Fowler (Cornell U. Press, 2005), pp. 15-16 (reviewed here and here)

UPDATE: I had a heck of a time trying to track down the kanji for the word Japanese word doya, which I couldn’t find either in my dictionaries or on Google. I finally found it spelled in katakana in the Japanese Wikipedia entry for San’ya (山谷), an area of Tokyo that contains many doya.

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