Thursday, October 19, 2017

Book Review: Why the emigrants immigrate – Stories of the English and the New World

If there’s fake news, there’s fake history and this might be the very reason every U.S. citizen should buy a copy of James Evans’s book, Emigrants:  Why The English Sailed to the New World. 

American folklore – which all too often passes for historical knowledge – suggests the Pilgrims came ashore in 1620, made friends with the natives, settling peacefully along the Massachusetts coastline while earlier settlements, Jamestown, Virginia and Newfoundland, Canada, receive little, if any, attention in U.S. classrooms and in the country’s culture. 

And that’s the reason to buy this book.  What Evans does so masterfully is dispel many myths Americans hold near and dear about the country’s founding and write it so that is neither accusatory nor presumptuous. 

Nearly 400,000 English men, women and children sailed for the New World (which included the Caribbean) in the 17th century for any number of reasons – to find riches, to escape religious persecution, for safety because they were loyal to the executed English king, Charles I, or because the Old World’s economics provided so few opportunities that they were without a reason not to take what was, for many, a fatal voyage. 

The Pilgrims, of course, are dominant in the story about American settlement.  But as Evans, a BBC historian, suggests, “... religion was not the reason which prompted English men, women and children to emigrate ... Some went to fish – astonished at the teeming resource in the western Atlantic, at a time when European (fishing) stocks were much depleted, thinking that while many crossed and re-crossed the ocean to do so, there might be a benefit in staying to live.”

“In spite of all these reasons for emigrating, there is little doubt that the majority who went from England to America during the seventeenth century did so for none of them.  They were, as it was said of one shipload, ‘mostly miserable poor people.’  They went because they were desperate, and because this was a course, perhaps the only course, which offered some hope ... England, then ... (with) ... Its rising population – what one Londoner called the ‘late unspeakable increases of people’ – ... made ... the majority of opinion (certainly of published opinion) backed a ‘diminution of the people’, by transplanting ‘no small number of them’ into some other soil,” Evans writes.

In other words, as English leaders saw it, the country needed to rid itself of its poor.  If those leaving thrived in the New World, wonderful, that would benefit England.  If they died, well, so be it, a point-of-view that seems all too similar to Mexico’s view of its citizens heading to the United States:  They’re expendable and the home country is better off without them.

Why does any emigrant leave their country – to become an immigrant in a different one? 

The same reason so many Latin American emigrants (as well as others from across the globe) leave their homes – hope that the new country will be better than the current one.

Seventeenth-century England was dangerous, especially during its Civil War, when pitched armed battles between those for Parliamentarian rights and those defending the government and the monarch of Charles I were fought in the 1640s, taking about 85,000 lives.[i]   Charles would eventually be tried and beheaded and the country ruled by Parliament’s leader, Oliver Cromwell. 

England’s economy and employment opportunities were also undergoing fundamental change, colliding with numerous years of crop failure and the “cloth industry, that bulwark of England’s economy, was sickly and collapsing,” leading one man to lament that everything was “‘in a heap of troubles and confusions.’” 

But if political danger and economic troubles weren’t precarious enough, there was always the trouble of being part of a faith that wasn’t fully trusted.  Much of the trauma suffered by those seeing profound problems with the Church of England, or having a different faith, whether it was Puritan, Catholic or Quaker, could suffer dearly at the hands of the authorities, as detailed not only by Dr. Evans but also in an earlier book, by John Barry, entitled, Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul:  Church, State and the Birth of Liberty.

The first English settlement – more likely a seasonal fishing camp, say some historians – in the western Atlantic was St. John’s, in what is Canada’s Newfoundland, in the 1580s.  It was a harbor for fishing ships and, in time, the English were joined there by many European fisherman, too. 

The first versions of diversity are also seen in some 17th century English settlements in America.  William Penn never wanted an exclusively Quaker community in Pennsylvania, telling those who followed him that liberty of consciousness (religious faith) was paramount, especially since he witnessed religious discrimination in England.  In earlier decades, Roger Williams promoted religious tolerance in Rhode Island and the stock holders of some English colonies told their colonists, upset that there was a lack religious cohesion, that it was the least of their worries.

Of course, settlement in America was more than just about fishing, harvesting tobacco and an improved life.  It was also about the century’s global politics.  In other words, it was a chess match, with a series of moves and countermoves.  In many ways, the St. John’s settlement and those that followed were checks against England’s significant European rivals, like Spain, which built a fort in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, and the Dutch, who started settling New York in 1614.[ii]

Is any of this significant 400 years later?  The great 19th century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck thought so, Evans writes.  When asked what he thought the pre-eminent fact of the modern world was, Bismarck said, it was that the United States spoke English, inheriting just enough English culture to keep it tied to Great Britain.  Although Bismarck passed before they happened, he likely wouldn’t be surprised to know that this shared language and heritage weighed heavily in 20th century history, deciding the outcome of both World Wars, the Cold War and the post-war world.  This combined language, culture and history will likely determine world events long into the future.

(For those readers curious to know what distinguishes an emigrant from an immigrant, see the following:

Publishing Information:

Emigrants: Why the English Sailed to the New World, by James Evans, published Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2017, 303 pages, including endnotes and bibliography, price:  £20.00

The book is currently available on’s UK website,, and the prices you pay will be in British pounds, converted into your local currency on your credit card bill.  The book won’t be available in the United States – according to Barnes & Noble – until early March 2018.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Book Review: Two Spies and the Cold War

The volatility of the Korean Peninsula could make anyone long for a Paul Dillon and a Dmitri Polyakov, two men who likely prevented a nuclear war.

Hardly anyone knows them, of course, because they were secret agents – spies, if you will – for the United States and the Soviet Union, respectively. 

This is what Eva Dillon, Paul’s daughter, does so well in her new book, Spies in the Family:  She puts a human face on what’s done anonymously, enlightening us to the heavy burden carried by those working incognito and, sometimes, the fatal end that awaits them. 

Paul Dillon spent nearly 30 years in the U.S.’s Central Intelligence Agency, from the early 1950s, when he was undercover in Germany, to his untimely death due to disease in 1980.  He and his wife took their children around the globe – including to Mexico City, Rome and New Delhi – as he pursued numerous opportunities to turn Soviet spies into double agents. 

His biggest turncoat, Soviet Major General Dmitri Fedorovich Polyakov, provided a treasure trove of information that likely helped reduce East-West tensions and, possibly, prevented World War III.

Polyakov, a decorated World War II veteran, started giving information to the United States in 1960, while working at the Soviet Union’s United Nations mission in New York, identifying Soviet spies in what would become the “biggest penetration of Soviet intelligence the FBI ever made.”

Polyakov wasn’t a double agent for personal gain.  He had a noble mission, Dillon says, wanting “to lessen the inevitability of a disastrous clash” between his country and the United States.  Even when offered political asylum and U.S. citizenship, he turned them down, saying he would die a Russian.

Paul Dillon met Polyakov in 1966 in Rangoon, Burma.  Their relationship continued when they were both working in New Delhi, with Dillon undercover as the U.S. Embassy’s first secretary and Polyakov undercover as the Soviet Union’s military attaché.

The two became close – even going on weekend hunting trips together – and, in time, Polyakov provided Dillon with precious insight into Soviet thinking about a nuclear war, showing that Moscow didn’t think such a war was winnable. 

CIA Director (and future Secretary of Defense) Robert Gates later told Time magazine that Polyakov “may have prevented U.S. miscalculations that would have touched off a shooting war” between both countries.  James Woolsey, CIA Director under President Clinton, described Polyakov as a “crown jewel,” the one who “kept the Cold War from becoming hot.”  Polyakov was so valuable to the United States that even President Reagan, in one of his final meetings with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, asked about him.

A spy’s life can be fraught with terror and a grim end, sometimes by the hands of his own people, sometimes even after he's retired.  That would become Polyakov’s tragic fate after infamous CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames turned over his name, along with others, to his Soviet handlers.  Reagan’s request was two months too late, Gorbachev informed him.  Polyakov was already dead.  Video of his arrest by the KGB is available on YouTube at 

As the United States faces renewed tension with Russia, as China builds military bases in the South China Sea, and North Korea appears to make good on its threat to arm itself with nuclear missiles, even threatening to use them – and that’s before considering Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and terrorist threats – this book should be required reading.  It should prompt all of us to hope that somewhere, in diplomacy’s deep, dark underworld, there’s a Paul Dillon and a Dmitri Polyakov working diligently so that cooler heads will prevail. 

This is a very readable and well researched book, with a nice mix of primary and secondary sources.  The author was able to interview some of her dad’s former colleagues as well as Polyakov’s son, Alexander.  In addition, we learn that working at the CIA is hardly what’s depicted in movies or television shows and that the skill set of its agents is broader than many might expect.

If there’s a flaw in this book, it’s when Eva met Alexander.  Given their connection, I was hoping there would be a chapter discussing what it was like to meet the son of a man who took so many chances.  In many ways, Eva and Alexander should be almost like brother and sister.  But, similar to the silent service of their fathers, little is revealed about their time together.

Spies in the Family:  An American Spymaster, His Russian Crown Jewel, and the Friendship that Helped End the Cold War, Eva Dillon, HarperCollins Publishers, $28.99, 327 pages

Monday, April 03, 2017

Book Review: America and The Missing Moderate Voter

If ever an author missed a golden opportunity to explain Donald Trump and the American voter, it might be David Brown, a history professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, with his new book, Moderates:  The Vital Center of American Politics, from the Founding to Today.

The title alone makes you think he’s written about voters.  But you soon discover he focused on a few presidents, their moderate views and how that helped them win the White House.  

In a time when people are taking to the streets against Trump, yelling at Congressional representatives during town meetings, or venting anger on social media – in other words, in an era marked by high tension, distrust and vitriol as people attempt to figure out where the United States is headed – this book stands out as a total miss for these turbulent times.

Had he showed how Americans size up issues and candidates as they determine their voting preferences, this book would be a worthwhile read.  Comparing recent American voting habits to the most recent election, it’s hard to believe a candidate as disruptive as Trump will be seen again, from either major political party, and it’s unfortunate he didn’t explore this issue.

Another problem with this book is the history presented about President Carter.  If all you knew about Carter was what you read from Professor Brown, you might think his downfall was due to two challengers from within his own party, Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and California Gov. Jerry Brown.  The U.S. Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran – which made him vulnerable to those challengers and destroyed his presidency – is never mentioned.

The next faux pas Brown makes is to repeat a tired criticism of the Republican Party – that unless it includes more minorities and women in its ranks, it’s likely to die off, a critique that circulated after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney failed to knock out Barack Obama from the White House in 2012, something that didn’t matter in 2016.

If there’s any take away from this book it might be that last November’s election was an aberration.  Over the last 40 years, Americans chose presidential candidates not too wedded to their political party.  Presidents Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Obama are cited as examples.

Indeed, a Gallup Poll, released in January 2016, about political affiliation suggests moderates should continue to win the White House because 42 percent of American voters identify as independents while 29 percent identify as Democrats and 26 percent identify as Republicans.  

If you're going to write about moderates, shouldn't this detail be in the book?  Perhaps the professor should take a class on research.  

“The rise in political independence is likely related to Americans’ frustration with party gridlock in the federal government,” Gallup reported.

But Gallup also pointed out a contradiction:  Sixteen percent of independents lean toward the Democrats and the same percentage leans Republican, giving each party more than 40 percent of all voters, meaning there are far fewer independents out there.  These numbers also provide a warning – politicians, at the national level, cannot stray too far left or too far right. 

They also say there’s not a shred of evidence the Republican Party will implode; that the Democrats will easily waltz back into the White House – because of the Electoral College just might stop them again in 2020 – or that they’ll dominate Congress after next year’s midterm elections because more voters find Democratic Party positions acceptable.  In other words, there are no guarantees about future elections.

The problem with this book is that the author was lazy.  He doesn’t offer a shred of new scholarship nor does he take a chance to explain why Americans tend to prefer moderates at the helm.  Instead, he parrots what others have written.  That said, his conclusion appears accurate:  A successful presidential candidate tends to be a centrist, someone independent voters and the party faithful find suitable.  

But had he done the work a book like this requires -- examining Americans’ tendency to skew a hue of purple instead of bright red or deep blue, checked his history, perhaps even accompanied reporters during last year’s primary and election seasons as they interviewed voters, it would stand out for offering great discovery about the American citizen.  As it stands, however, it isn’t worth the money.

Publishing Information:

Moderates:  The Vital Center of American Politics, From the Founding to Today, by David S. Brown.  Chapel Hill, NC:  The University of North Carolina Press, 2016.  Available at and for $34.95

Gallup Poll: