Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization

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Bestselling author Nicholson Baker, recognized as one of the most dexterous and talented writers in America today, has created a compelling work of nonfiction bound to provoke discussion and controversy ? a wide-ranging, astonishingly fresh perspective on the political and social landscape that gave rise to World War II.

Human Smoke delivers a closely textured, deeply moving indictment of the treasured myths that have romanticized much of the 1930s and '40s. Incorporating ...

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2008 Hard cover First edition. New in new dust jacket. Tight binding with clean text. New. First Edition. D/j is slightly worn along edges. One page is dog-earred.. Glued ... binding. Paper over boards. With dust jacket. 566 p. Audience: General/trade. Bestselling author Nicholson Baker, recognized as one of the most dexterous and talented writers in the US today, has created a compelling work of non-fiction bound to provoke discussion and controversy--a wide-ranging, astonishingly fresh perspective on the political and social landscape that gave rise to World War II. Human Smoke delivers a closely textured, deeply moving indictment of the treasured myths that have romanticized much of the 1930s and '40s. Incorporating meticulous research and well-documented sources--including newspaper and magazine articles, radio speeches, memoirs, and diaries--the book juxtaposes hundreds of interrelated moments of decision, brutality, suffering, and mercy. Vivid glimpses of political leaders and their dissenters illuminate Read more Show Less

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Bestselling author Nicholson Baker, recognized as one of the most dexterous and talented writers in America today, has created a compelling work of nonfiction bound to provoke discussion and controversy — a wide-ranging, astonishingly fresh perspective on the political and social landscape that gave rise to World War II.

Human Smoke delivers a closely textured, deeply moving indictment of the treasured myths that have romanticized much of the 1930s and '40s. Incorporating meticulous research and well-documented sources — including newspaper and magazine articles, radio speeches, memoirs, and diaries — the book juxtaposes hundreds of interrelated moments of decision, brutality, suffering, and mercy. Vivid glimpses of political leaders and their dissenters illuminate and examine the gradual, horrifying advance toward overt global war and Holocaust.

Praised by critics and readers alike for his exquisitely observant eye and deft, inimitable prose, Baker has assembled a narrative within Human Smoke that unfolds gracefully, tragically, and persuasively. This is an unforgettable book that makes a profound impact on our perceptions of historical events and mourns the unthinkable loss humanity has borne at its own hand.

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Editorial Reviews

Colm Toibin
It is possible that Human Smoke will infuriate those who believe that Churchill was a hero and that war, in all its viciousness, is often the only way to defeat those who declare or threaten war. Human Smoke will not be admired by those who argue that methods used to win a war may seem, especially to novelists writing more than 60 years later, impossible to justify. Nonetheless, the issues Baker wishes to raise, and the stark system he has used to dramatize his point, make his book a serious and conscientious contribution to the debate about pacifism. He has produced an eloquent and passionate assault on the idea that the deliberate targeting of civilians can ever be justified.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

"Burning a village properly takes a long time," wrote a British commander in Iraq in 1920. In this sometimes astonishing yet perplexing account of the destructive futility of war, NBCC award-winning writer Baker (Double Fold) traces a direct line from there to WWII, when Flying Fortresses and incendiary bombs made it possible to burn a city in almost no time at all. Central to Baker's episodic narrative- a chronological juxtaposition of discrete moments from 1892 to December 31, 1941-are accounts from contemporary reports of Britain's terror campaign of repeatedly bombing German cities even before the London blitz. The large chorus of voices echoing here range from pacifists like Quaker Clarence Pickett to the seemingly cynical warmongering of Churchill and FDR; the rueful resignation of German-Jewish diarist Viktor Klemperer to Clementine Churchill's hate-filled reference to "yellow Japanese lice." Baker offers no judgment, but he also fails to offer context: was Hitler's purported plan to send the Jews to Madagascar serious, or, as one leading historian has called it, a fiction? Baker gives no clue. Yet many incidents carry an emotional wallop-of anger and shock at actions on all sides-that could force one to reconsider means and ends even in a "good" war and to view the word "terror" in a very discomfiting context. (Mar.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
School Library Journal

This book starts in 1892, with explosions manufacturer Alfred Nobel's observation that his factories might "put an end to war" by making it too horrible to wage, and ends on December 31, 1941, with the civilized world enmeshed for the second time in half a century in a life-and-death struggle that would last four more years and kill more people-civilians and combatants-than any other war before or since. Acclaimed author Baker (Double Fold) has made a career of focusing on detail in both his fiction and his nonfiction, a preference that works to effect in this bombshell of a book. In this litany of examples of aggression, inhumanity, and self-deception, Baker's entries typically run a paragraph or two. He seldom editorializes. The cumulative effect of the detail is devastating: it's like a particularly unsettling nightmare, a treadmill you can't get off. You may not agree with Baker that counteraggression doesn't stop aggression ("Churchill ...was wrong") but instead escalates it, with rationality and humanity among its first casualties. But this thought-provoking book may make you reconsider your views on the necessity and efficacy of war. Warmly recommended for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ11/15/07.]
—David Keymer

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Reviews
A catalog of primary sources creatively fashioned by novelist and National Book Critics Circle Award-winner Baker (Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, 2001, etc.) tells the grim story of the making of two world wars. Using period sources such as newspaper articles, excerpts from speeches and diaries and congressional testimony, Baker presents an in-the-moment reenactment of 20th-century world events. He begins in 1914 with Austrian writer Stefan Zweig's alarm at observing a French movie crowd's angry reaction to seeing Wilhelm II on the newsreel ("how easily people anywhere could be aroused in a time of a crisis") and ends poignantly with Jewish writer Mihail Sebastian's diary entry from Bucharest at the close of the "dreadful year" 1941: "We are still alive. We can still wait for something." Baker's chronological collage juxtaposes official government maneuvers by Churchill or Roosevelt with antiwar activity such as U.S. Representative Jeannette Rankin's vote against declaring war on Germany in 1917 ("I felt . . . that the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war she should say it"). Eloquent quotes from Gandhi reflect momentous events in India; bombastic speeches by Hitler and Goebbels chronicle the Nazi seizure of power in Germany; evasive utterances by Roosevelt finesse the issue of raising Jewish immigration quotas on the eve of World War II. The mostly brief, descriptive fragments delineate, for example, Charles Lindbergh's perplexity at Germany's "Jewish problem," while eyewitnesses describe the bombing of Guernica, Shanghai and Coventry. Baker reveals a weighty pacifist presence and moral outcry against oppression of the Jews in Europe, whileauthorities hurtled toward a military solution. His selections contrast the inhumanity of the powerful with the heart-wrenching testimony of victims and survivors. Similar to but less noisy than John Dos Passos's U.S.A.: Selective, well-chosen fragments add up to a living history. Agent: Melanie Jackson/Melanie Jackson Agency
From the Publisher
"This quite extraordinary book—-impossible to put down, impossible to forget—-may be the most compelling argument for peace ever assembled." —-Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman
The Barnes & Noble Review
Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker's history of the first years of the Second World War, is an unabashedly quixotic book. It is even more quixotic than Double Fold, a noble plea for the preservation of old newspapers, which won Baker the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2001. At first glance, Human Smoke does not appear to be a plea for anything; it takes the form of a series of vignettes, which begin in 1892, with Alfred Nobel's well-known and utterly mistaken hope that his explosives would promote peace, and end with the despairing reflections of a Romanian Jewish playwright on the last night of 1941.

In between, Baker takes us to just about every country affected by the war and presents well-known figures alongside many who are now nearly forgotten: Jeanette Rankin, congresswoman from Montana, the only United States Representative to vote against the First World War and later the only one to vote against the Second; Harry Emerson Fosdick, a pro-war preacher turned pacifist; Theodore Kaufman, a Brooklyn ticket seller who wrote a tract calling for the forced sterilization of the German nation. And so on. The headlong rush from person to person and place to place is exhilarating; like Mailer's The Executioner's Song, to which it bears a formal resemblance, Human Smoke is hard to put down.

Baker does not make an argument, at least not explicitly. He presents you with data and leaves you to draw your own conclusions; yet he does have a point, and it's one that hasn't often been made about the Second World War. Human Smoke is dedicated to the American and British pacifists who opposed the war (the dedication comes at the end of the book, so as not to tip Baker's hand at the outset). "They've never really gotten their due," Baker writes. "They tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right; Winston Churchill, I'm sorry to say, was wrong." In Baker's analysis, the "good war" fought by the "greatest generation" dissolves, and what appears is a bloody, avoidable struggle among nations, none of which possessed the moral high ground, although they all claimed it.

On the whole, Baker's denunciation of the warmakers is more compelling than his vindication of the pacifists. The Roosevelts do not come across well in his account: when we meet Eleanor, she is complaining about a party to which "mostly Jews" have been invited; a few pages later Franklin is lobbying for a stricter quota on Jews at Harvard. The Roosevelt administration's intransigence toward European refugees is well documented here, and its foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack is strongly suggested: "The question," Baker quotes Roosevelt as saying in November 1941, "was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves." This is a case that has been made before, but the human scale of Human Smoke gives it emotional force. On the afternoon of the Pearl Harbor attack, we learn that Roosevelt's son looked into his father's office and found the president going through his stamp collection.

Baker takes an even dimmer view of Winston Churchill. Drawing on accounts by people who knew Churchill or served under him, he portrays the prime minister as a bloody-minded child eager for action of any kind, a sensation seeker who, after his famous "blood, toil, tears and sweat" speech to the House of Commons, turned to an aide and said, "That got the sods, didn't it?" More tellingly, Baker notes that at Churchill's instigation, Britain was bombing German targets, first in the Ruhr Valley, then all over, at least three months before Germany began to bomb Britain. Although the British bombs were nominally aimed at military and industrial areas, they more often landed on civilians, sometimes in the wrong city or even in the wrong country. The Germans retaliated in kind.

A strange picture appears in Human Smoke, of an aggressive Churchill pressuring a reluctant Hitler to attack England, on the assumption that fighting in (or over) Britain would draw America into the war. The assumption proved not quite correct, and so the Battle of Britain came to pass, then the Blitz. The RAF began night raids on German cities; the Germans bombed British cities at night. (If Human Smoke makes anything clear, it's that bombing is a poor way to get your enemy to change his mind: Churchill's hopes for the "pedagogical" bombing of Germany and Italy were just as mistaken as Goering's prediction that Britain could be "brought on its knees" by a "hard stroke.")

Churchill's eagerness to wage war, Baker suggests, may have had still more tragic consequences. Madman that he was, Hitler seems to have contemplated expelling the Jews from Europe before he settled upon their extermination; in the summer of 1940 he considered a plan to relocate the Jews to Madagascar. "It was all contingent," Baker writes, "on peace with Churchill" and the lifting of the British naval blockade. Which, as everyone knows, did not happen; so the Madagascar plan was scrapped, and Hitler turned his mind toward other ways of dealing with the Jews.

Here, however, it's not as clear as Baker makes it seem that peace would have been preferable to war. The Madagascar plan was never fully endorsed by the German government (no one consulted the Vichy French, who still held Madagascar, about it); and it seems as though Hitler wanted to defeat the British as much or more than he wanted to make peace with them. He had, after all, issued the directive for a westward invasion before France and Britain turned an earlier peace offer down; he had also signed a nonaggression pact with Stalin, which did not prevent him from invading the Soviet Union a year later. Even assuming that such a thing was possible, what would peace between Hitler and Churchill have looked like? Would the Jews have been sent to Madagascar, and if so, would they have lived there in safety? The questions are at best unanswerable; and the danger of Baker's suggestive method is that it can make them seem already answered.

To be fair, though, Human Smoke presents an equivocal picture of the benefits of nonviolence. Baker notes that Neville Chamberlain's capitulation at Munich put an early end to a coup d'état planned by Hitler's general staff (although it can't be known whether it would have succeeded any better than Claus von Stauffenberg's assassination attempt six years later). Gandhi, a recurring figure in these pages, speaks eloquently, but his declaration that "if I were a Jew and were born in Germany and earned my livelihood there, I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German may, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon" -- written, admittedly, in 1938 -- cannot be taken to heart when accompanied, as it is here, with scenes of Polish Jews lying down peacefully in lime-filled pits, waiting for the SS to blow them up with hand grenades.

To imagine such scenes is to wish that everyone were a pacifist; but the mere wish for peace is not really what Human Smoke offers the reader. The steady progression of events and days in Baker's history reminds the reader that the Second World War did not happen all at once: as Christopher Isherwood wrote in 1939, "One looks ahead to a war and imagines it as a single, final, absolute event. It is nothing of the kind. War is a condition, like peace, with good days and bad days, moods of optimism and despair." War is a series of contingent events -- which is to say that there are any number of opportunities to prevent it, or even to stop it once it has begun.

A less quixotic historian than Baker would tell you that, in the case of the Second World War, these opportunities were mere illusion: the Second World War was inevitable given the First, and the First was inevitable given the massing of men and arms in Europe at the end of the 19th century, and that massing was inevitable given the improvements in agriculture, transportation, and public hygiene. But if the moments when it looked like peace had a chance were only illusions, they might have been useful ones. Wars have been started on the strength of illusions, and it is at least theoretically possible that they can be prevented on that basis as well. --Paul LaFarge

Paul LaFarge is the author of two novels: The Artist of the Missing and Haussmann, or the Distinction. He is currently working on a project about flight in America.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416567844
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 3/11/2008
  • Pages: 576
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Nicholson Baker
Norman Dietz, a writer, an actor, and a solo performer, has recorded over 150 audiobooks, many of which have earned him awards from AudioFile magazine, the ALA, and Publishers Weekly. Additionally, AudioFile named Norman one of the Best Voices of the Century.


An elegant writer who has taken stream of consciousness to dizzying postmodern heights, Nicholson Baker has produced a body of work that is eccentric, inventive, and extremely difficult to categorize. In his virtually plotless novels, characters ruminate on the minutest details of everyday life and lose themselves in memories of Proustian intensity. His nonfiction is equally unconventional, filled with meticulously researched minutiae and passionate polemics on topics of great personal interest -- perhaps only to himself.

Baker's quirky brilliance was evident early on in several convoluted short stories that appeared in The New Yorker and Atlantic. But he hit his own idiosyncratic stride with his 1998 debut novel. Essentially one long, loopy digression riddled with footnotes nearly as long as the narrative, The Mezzanine traces a young man's meandering thoughts during a brief escalator ride from the ground floor to the mezzanine of the office building where he works. The "action," such as it is, takes scant minutes, but it's time enough to lay bare the protagonist's entire inner life. In his review for The New York Times, Robert Plunket singled out for commendation "...the razor-sharp insight and droll humor with which Mr. Baker illuminates the unseen world."

In other novels, Baker has taken us inside the heads of many characters: a young father bottle-feeding his infant daughter (Room Temperature); a middle-aged man whose early-morning ritual begins with lighting a fire (A Box of Matches); a man who stops time in order to fondle and exploit unsuspecting women (Fermata); two people a continent apart who indulge in graphic sexual fantasies over the telephone (Vox). (Fermata and Vox were widely criticized as "literary pornography." Vox created additional buzz, when it was revealed that Monica Lewinsky had given a copy to President Bill Clinton.)

Although Baker can never be accused of dispassion, the peculiarity of his nonfiction has led to mixed reviews. In lengthy essays and articles and wildly discursive books, he has paid extravagant tribute to his literary hero John Updike (U and I: A True Story), decried the destruction of library card catalogs (an essay in The Size of Thoughts), led a crusade to preserve and archive entire collections of American newspapers (Double Fold), and challenged the traditional view of World War II as "inevitable" (Human Smoke).

Baker's brand of erudite obsession may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it is easy for literate readers to fall in love with his glittering prose. He is, above all else, a lover of language; and in his deft and capable hands, even the most mundane objects and events spring to glorious, full-bodied life. Summing up the singular, seductive charms of Baker's writing, Salon critic Laura Miller may have said it best: "...dazzling descriptive powers married to a passionate enthusiasm for the neglected flotsam and jetsam of everyday life."

Good To Know

A two-week writing seminar with Donald Barthelme at the University of California jump-started Baker's writing career.

His great-grandfather Ray Stannard Baker served as press secretary to president Woodrow Wilson and won a Pulitzer prize for his biography of Wilson.

Baker's first area of interest was music, rather than literature. A talented bassoonist, he attended Eastman School of Music with an eye to becoming a classical composer. Midway through his first year, he changed his major to English. He transferred to Haverfod College in Philadelphia, graduating in 1980.

One of Baker's most passionate concerns is preserving complete runs of newspapers as a valuable record of American history. To that end, he founded the American Newspaper Repository in 1999, when he learned the British Library was selling off or trashing its bound volumes of post-1870 newspapers.

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    1. Date of Birth:
    2. Place of Birth:
      Rochester, NY
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English, Haverford College, 1980

Read an Excerpt

Human Smoke The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
By Nicholson Baker Simon & Schuster Copyright © 2008 Nicholson Baker
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781416567844

Alfred Nobel, the manufacturer of explosives, was talking to his friend the Baroness Bertha von Suttner, author of Lay Down Your Arms. Von Suttner, a founder of the European antiwar movement, had just attended the fourth World's Peace Conference in Bern. It was August 1892.

"Perhaps my factories will put an end to war even sooner than your congresses," Alfred Nobel said. "On the day when two army corps may mutually annihilate each other in a second, probably all civilized nations will recoil with horror and disband their troops."

Stefan Zweig, a young writer from Vienna, sat in the audience at a movie theater in Tours, France, watching a newsreel. It was spring 1914.

An image of Wilhelm II, the Emperor of Germany, came on screen for a moment. At once the theater was in an uproar. "Everybody yelled and whistled, men, women, and children, as if they had been personally insulted," Zweig wrote. "The good-natured people of Tours, who knew no more about the world and politics than what they had read in their newspapers, had gone mad for an instant."

Zweig was frightened. "It had only been a second, but one that showed me how easily people anywhere could be aroused in a time of a crisis, despite all attempts atunderstanding."

Winston Churchill, England's first lord of the admiralty, instituted a naval blockade of Germany. "The British blockade," Churchill later wrote, "treated the whole of Germany as if it were a beleaguered fortress, and avowedly sought to starve the whole population -- men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound -- into submission." It was 1914.

Stefan Zweig was at the eastern front, gathering Russian war proclamations for the Austrian archives. It was the spring of 1915.

Zweig boarded a freight car on a hospital train. "One crude stretcher stood next to the other," he wrote, "and all were occupied by moaning, sweating, deathly pale men, who were gasping for breath in the thick atmosphere of excrement and iodoform." There were several dead among the living. The doctor, in despair, asked Zweig to get water. He had no morphine and no clean bandages, and they were still twenty hours from Budapest.

When Zweig got back to Vienna, he began a pacifist play, Jeremiah. "I had recognized," Zweig wrote, "the foe I was to fight -- false heroism that prefers to send others to suffering and death, the cheap optimism of the conscienceless prophets, both political and military who, boldly promising victory, prolong the war, and behind them the hired chorus, the 'word makers of war' as Werfel has pilloried them in his beautiful poem."

Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, voted against declaring war on Germany. It was April 6, 1917.

"I leaned over the gallery rail and watched her," said her friend Harriet Laidlaw, of the Woman Suffrage Party. "She was undergoing the most terrible strain." Almost all of her fellow suffrage leaders, including Laidlaw, wanted her to vote yes.

There was a silence when her name was called. "I want to stand by my country," Rankin said. "But I cannot vote for war. I vote no." Fifty other members of the House voted no with her; 374 voted yes. "I felt," she said later, "that the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war she should say it."

One of her home-state papers, the Helena Independent, called her "a dupe of the Kaiser, a member of the Hun army in the United States, and a crying schoolgirl."

A young pro-war preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, wrote a short book, published by the Young Men's Christian Association.

War was not gallantry and parades anymore, Reverend Fosdick said. "War is now dropping bombs from aeroplanes and killing women and children in their beds; it is shooting by telephonic orders, at an unseen place miles away and slaughtering invisible men." War, he said, is "men with jaws gone, eyes gone, limbs gone, minds gone."

Fosdick ended his book with a call for enlistment: "Your country needs you," he said. It was November 1917.

Meyer London, a socialist in the House of Representatives, voted no to President Wilson's second declaration of war, against Austria-Hungary. It was December 7, 1917.

"In matters of war I am a teetotaler," said London, in a fifteen-minute speech. "I refuse to take the first intoxicating drink."

Representative Walter Chandler walked over to where London sat and stood in front of him as he delivered his rebuttal.

"It has been said that if you will analyze the blood of a Jew under the microscope, you will find the Talmud and the Old Bible floating around in some particles," Congressman Chandler said. "If you analyze the blood of a representative German or Teuton you will find machine guns and particles of shells and bombs floating around in the blood."

There was only one thing to do with the Teutons, according to Chandler: "Fight them until you destroy the whole bunch."

Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband, Franklin D., the assistant secretary of the navy, were invited to a party in honor of Bernard Baruch, the financier. "I've got to go to the Harris party which I'd rather be hung than seen at," Eleanor wrote her mother-in-law. "Mostly Jews." It was January 14, 1918.

A captured German officer was talking to a reporter for The New York Times. It was November 3, 1918, and the German government had asked for an armistice.

The German officer claimed that his army was not defeated and should have continued the war. "The Emperor is surrounded by people who feel and talk defeat," the offi cer said. He mentioned men like Philipp Scheidemann, the leader of the socialists.

New tanks were coming, the captured officer observed, and war was expected between the United States and Japan. "Japan and the United States would surely clash some day," he said, "and we would then furnish both sides with enormous quantities of material and munitions." The ceding of Poland and Alsace-Lorraine, the officer believed, meant social upheaval, the ruin of German industry, and the impoverishment of the working class. "Our enemies will have what they have desired -- the complete annihilation of Germany. That would be a peace due to Scheidemann."

Winston Churchill, now England's secretary of state for war and air, rose in Parliament to talk about the success of the naval blockade. It was March 3, 1919, four months after the signing of the armistice that ended the Great War.

"We are enforcing the blockade with rigour," Churchill said. "It is repugnant to the British nation to use this weapon of starvation, which falls mainly on the women and children, upon the old and the weak and the poor, after all the fi ghting has stopped, one moment longer than is necessary to secure the just terms for which we have fought." Hunger and malnutrition, the secretary of war and air observed, had brought German national life to a state of near collapse. "Now is therefore the time to settle," he said.

Winston Churchill published a newspaper article. It was February 8, 1920. Churchill had a different enemy now. Now his enemy wasn't Germany, it was the "sinister confederacy" of international Jewry.

"This movement among the Jews is not new," Churchill said. It was a "world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development, of envious malevolence, and impossible equality." He listed Marx, Trotsky, Béla Kun, Rosa Luxemburg, and Emma Goldman as some of the malefactors. The conspiracy had been, he said, the "mainspring of every subversive movement during the Nineteenth Century." It had played a recognizable part in the French Revolution. All loyal Jews, he advised, must "vindicate the honour of the Jewish name" by rejecting international bolshevism.

Aylmer Haldane, the commander of British forces in Iraq, telegraphed Winston Churchill for more troops and airplanes. It was August 26, 1920.

"Jihad was being preached with frenzied fervour by the numerous emissaries from the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala," Haldane wrote. Churchill, secretary of state for war and air, sent him an encouraging note: "The Cabinet have decided that the rebellion must be quelled effectually, and I shall endeavour to meet all your requirements."

Several days later, Churchill wrote Hugh "Boom" Trenchard, the head of the Royal Air Force, a memo. Churchill and Trenchard were developing the notion of policing the British empire from above, thereby saving the cost of ground troops -- a policy that became known as "air control."

"I think you should certainly proceed with the experimental work on gas bombs, especially mustard gas, which would inflict punishment on recalcitrant natives without inflicting grave injury on them," Churchill wrote Trenchard. Churchill was an expert on the effects of mustard gas -- he knew that it could blind and kill, especially children and infants. Gas spreads a "lively terror," he pointed out in an earlier memo; he didn't understand the prevailing squeamishness about its use: "I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes." Most of those gassed wouldn't have "serious permanent effects," he said.

Haldane's men bombed and strafed rebellious tribes, fired on them with gas-filled shells, burned villages, and repaired the railway. The official death toll on the British side was forty-seven English officers and troops and 250 Indian Gurkhas. "It is impossible to give the Arab casualties with any approach to exactitude," Haldane wrote, "but they have been estimated at 8450 killed and wounded." Haldane offered his thoughts on how to deal punitively with a village. "Separate parties should be detailed for firing the houses, digging up and burning the grain and bhoosa, looting, &c.," he advised. "Burning a village properly takes a long time, an hour or more according to size from the time the burning parties enter."

Churchill wrote Haldane a congratulatory telegram: "During these diffi cult months your patience and steadfastness have been of great value, and I congratulate you upon the distinct improvement in the situation which has been effected by you." It was October 18, 1920.

A wing commander in the Royal Air Force, J. A. Chamier, published his views on how best to deal with tribal rebellions.

The commanding officer must choose the most inaccessible village of the most prominent tribe, said Chamier, and attack it with all available aircraft. "The attack with bombs and machine guns must be relentless and unremitting and carried on continuously by day and night, on houses, inhabitants, crops and cattle," Chamier wrote. "This sounds brutal, I know, but it must be made brutal to start with. The threat alone in the future will prove efficacious if the lesson is once properly learnt." It was 1921.

Franklin Roosevelt, now a lawyer in New York City, noticed that Jews made up one-third of the freshman class at Harvard. He talked the problem over with Henry Morgenthau, Sr., and he went to the Harvard Board of Overseers, of which he was a member. "It was decided," Roosevelt later explained, "that over a period of years the number of Jews should be reduced one or two per cent a year until it was down to 15%." It was about 1922.

Mohandas K. Gandhi was arrested for sedition. He had written an article that began: "How can there be any compromise whilst the British Lion continues to shake his gory claws in our faces?" It was March 10, 1922.

That Sunday, John Haynes Holmes, a pacifist preacher, gave a sermon in the Lyric Theater in New York. "Gandhi is disciplining three hundred million Indians to struggle for liberty," Holmes said, "to throw off the British yoke by nonviolence, and he is doing this with a degree of success which is shaking the empire to its foundations. He would save India in time, and therewith perhaps save the world."

Gandhi gave a statement at his trial. "I am endeavoring to show to my countrymen that violent non-cooperation only multiplies evil and that as evil can only be sustained by violence, withdrawal of support of evil requires complete abstention from violence," he said. He would, he told the court, cheerfully submit to the highest penalty for his crime.

He was sentenced to a term of six years in jail.

Lord Hugh Cecil, a member of Parliament for Oxford, rose to say that the Royal Air Force was unnecessarily large and should be smaller. It was March 21, 1922.

Winston Churchill, the secretary of state for war, secretary of state for air, and secretary of state for the colonies, rose in reply to say that the Royal Air Force should stay large. Churchill recalled the end of the Great War, when British airplanes had been on the verge of bold accomplishments. "Had the War lasted a few more months, or possibly even a few more weeks," he said, "there would have been operations conducted from these coasts upon Berlin and in the heart of Germany, and those operations would have increased in magnitude and consequence had the campaign been prolonged all through the year 1919." But those operations were not to be. Peace intervened, "owing to our having run short of Germans and enemies before the experiments were completed."

Churchill went on to make a prediction. "In an aerial war," he said, "the greatest form of defence will undoubtedly be offense."

Stefan Zweig was on vacation in Westerland, on the island of Sylt in the North Sea. He read in the paper that his friend Walter Rathenau, the foreign minister of Germany, a Jew, had been assassinated. It was June 24, 1922.

The German mark plunged in value. "Now the real witch's sabbath of inflation started," wrote Zweig. To repair a broken window now cost more than the whole house would have cost before the infl ation; a single book now cost more than a printing company with one hundred presses had. "The unemployed stood around and shook their fists at the profi teers and foreigners in their luxurious cars who bought whole rows of streets like a box of matches," he said. "Towering above them all was the superprofi teer, Stinnes."

With the collapse of values, Zweig said, Berlin became a Babylon: "Every high school boy wanted to earn some money, and in the dimly lit bars one might see government officials and men of the world of finance tenderly courting drunken sailors without any shame."

Authoritarian countermovements grew amid chaos, said Zweig. Men "aligned themselves in readiness for any slogan that promised order."

Boom Trenchard, head of the Royal Air Force, was chatting with his staff. They were wondering whether it was better to have lots of fighter planes, in order to fight off the enemy, or lots of bombers to bomb the enemy on his home ground. Trenchard said that it was really like playing football. You can't just defend your own goal, you have to go over onto the other side of the field. The nation that could stand being bombed longest, he said, would win in the end. And, in his opinion, "The French in a bombing duel would probably squeal before we did." It was July 9, 1923.

The Daily Mail, a conservative London paper, published a forged letter. It was October 25, 1924.

The letter was purportedly signed by Grigori Zinoviev, a Russian communist leader, and addressed to the Communist Party in England. It appeared four days before the general election of 1924 -- an important race for Winston Churchill, who had lost two previous campaigns.

The letter, marked "very secret," talked of a "successful rising in any of the working districts of England." Its prose had faintly Churchillian cadences in places -- there were phrases such as "strain every nerve" and "pronounced its weighty word" -- but with an admixture of bolshevistic pastiche. "It would be desirable to have cells (nuclei?) in all the units of troops, particularly among those quartered in large centres of the country, and among factories working on munitions and at military store depots," the letter said. The headline in the Daily Mail was "Civil War Plot by Socialists' Masters."

Churchill's devoted supporter Esmond Harmsworth was the son of Lord Rothermere, publisher of the Daily Mail. Churchill's close ally in Secret Intelligence, Desmond Morton, first forwarded the letter from an obscure Latvian source to the British Foreign Office, attesting to its authenticity.

Moscow called the letter a "clumsy forgery" and a "crude fabrication" and demanded an apology. Members of Parliament said it was a "fake" and a "malicious hoax." "How did Conservative headquarters become possessed of that letter?" the Labor prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, asked. "It is a most suspicious circumstance that a newspaper and headquarters of the Conservative Association seem to have had copies of it at the same time as the Foreign Office, and if that is true, how can I, a simple-minded, honest person who puts two and two together, avoid a suspicion -- I will not say conclusion -- that the whole thing is a political plot?"

Churchill and other conservatives used the Zinoviev letter to unseat Prime Minister MacDonald. Churchill compared MacDonald to Alexander Kerensky, the weak Russian socialist leader who allowed the Bolsheviks to triumph.

"You all know the story of Kerensky," Churchill said in a campaign speech, "how he stood there, like Mr. MacDonald, pretending that he meant to do the best he could for his country, and all the time apologizing behind the scenes to the wild, dark, deadly forces which had him in their grip."

Churchill won his election. Still he couldn't stop talking about the Zinoviev letter. Conspirators and revolutionaries "of every race under the sun" had assembled in Russia to plan world revolution, he asserted in the Weekly Dispatch. "Everywhere they have endeavoured to bring into being the 'germ cells' from which the cancer of Communism should grow," he wrote. "There was, therefore, nothing new and nothing particularly violent in the letter of Zinoviev, alias Apfelbaum, to the British Communists." It was November 2, 1924.

Ramsey MacDonald watched his Labor cabinet pack up. He felt, he said, like a man sewn in a sack and tossed into the sea. Churchill returned to power: He became chancellor of the exchequer in the new Conservative government.

He reinstated the gold standard, triggering a massive depression.

Joseph Goebbels was working on his diary-novel Michael. "I lie awake for a long time and think of the quiet pale man of Nazareth," he wrote. Then Adolf Hitler came into his life.

Hitler had just gotten out of Landesberg prison, where he'd dictated Mein Kampf to his friend Rudolf Hess. Goebbels finished reading Mein Kampf. "Who is this man?" he asked himself. "The real Christ, or only St. John?" Hitler offered Goebbels the job of editor of the National Socialist newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter. They spoke at meetings together. "He jumps to his feet, there he is," Goebbels wrote in his diary in November 1925. "Shakes my hand. Like an old friend. And those big blue eyes. Like stars. He is glad to see me. I am in heaven."

A few weeks later, Goebbels saw him again. "Hitler is there. Great joy. He greets me like an old friend. And looks after me. How I love him! What a fellow! Then he speaks. How small I am! He gives me his photograph. With a greeting to the Rhineland. Heil Hitler! I want Hitler to be my friend. His photograph is on my desk."

A few months later still, the two of them had another meeting. Goebbels gave a two-and-a-half-hour speech. "I give it all I have. They rave, they shout. In the end Hitler embraces me. Tears are in his eyes. I feel something like true happiness."

They had dinner together that evening -- Hitler allowed Goebbels to pay. "And even in that, what greatness!"

Goebbels had found his man of Nazareth. "Adolf Hitler -- I love you."

Reverend Harry Fosdick gave a sermon in Geneva, at the Cathedral of Saint Pierre. It was September 13, 1925, the opening of the League of Nations Assembly. Reverend Fosdick had renounced his previous fervent militarism; he was a well-known antiwar preacher now.

Fosdick had seen men come freshly gassed from the trenches, he said. He had heard the cries of those who wanted to die and could not.

"I hate war," he said, "for what it forces us to do to our enemies, rejoicing over our coffee cups at the breakfast table about every damnable and devilish evil we have been able to inflict upon them. I hate war for its results, the lies it lives on and propagates, the undying hatreds that it rouses, the dictatorships that it puts in the place of democracy, and the starvation that stalks after it." Fosdick's speech was quoted in newspapers. Twenty-five thousand copies of it were printed and distributed. Most people agreed with it. Most of the world was pacifist.

The Royal Air Force dropped more than 150 tons of bombs on India. It was 1925.

Winston Churchill visited Rome. "I could not help being charmed by Signor Mussolini's gentle and simple bearing, and by his calm, detached poise in spite of so many burdens and dangers," Churchill said in a press statement. Italian fascism, he said, had demonstrated that there was a way to combat subversive forces; it had provided the "necessary antidote to the Russian virus."

"If I had been an Italian I am sure I should have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism," Churchill told the Romans. It was January 20, 1927.

The Royal Air Force announced the staging of a mock bombing exercise at its annual air pageant in Hendon, north of London. It was June 11, 1927.

The New York Times described the Hendon event in advance: "The 'town,' which will be built largely of airplane wings, will be bombed to bits. Airplanes will drop food and ammunition to the European 'refugees,' who will be fl eeing after having escaped from the citadel in which they have been 'beleaguered' by the town's native inhabitants." The town was located in the imaginary land of Irquestine.

Two hundred airplanes were going to fly to the music of a song called "Chick, Chick, Chick, Chick, Chicken." When the singer sang "Lay a little egg for me," the planes were to release their bombs.

A squadron of British planes bombed the sacred pyramid of the Nuer at Dengkur, in the African Sudan. They blew up herds of cattle -- "mangled flesh and splintered bones crescendoed high," reported Time magazine -- and strafed Nuer tribesmen. One of the tribesmen shot back, wounding a pilot in the thigh. "Not more than 200 Nuers were killed," according to an offi cial estimate. It was February 1928.

Winston Churchill published an extraordinary work of history called The Aftermath, the last volume in his history of the Great War. It was March 1929.

The Great War exhibited novel features, Churchill said. For example: "Whole nations were methodically subjected, or sought to be subjected, to the process of reduction by famine." But what had happened was nothing compared to what would have happened if the Germans had kept fighting into 1919, he said. Poison gases of "incredible malignity" would have ended all resistance. "Thousands of aeroplanes would have shattered their cities."

Instead, suddenly, the fighting ended: "In a hundred laboratories, in a thousand arsenals, factories, and bureaux, men pulled themselves up with a jerk, and turned from the task in which they had been absorbed."

But those whose noncombatant labors had been interrupted would get another chance, sooner or later, to carry forward their plans from 1919, Churchill predicted. "Death stands at attention," he wrote, "obedient, expectant, ready to serve, ready to shear away the peoples en masse; ready, if called on, to pulverise, without hope of repair, what is left of civilisation. He awaits only the word of command."

Baron Ponsonby, author of Falsehood in Wartime, remembered something that Winston Churchill had said to him years before. "I like things to happen," he had said, "and if they don't happen I like to make them happen." It was March 11, 1929.

Winston Churchill, on a speaking tour in the United States, gave a talk at the Bond Club in New York City. It was October 9, 1929.

Churchill's speaker's fee of $12,500 was paid by Sir Harry McGowan, chairman of African Explosives and deputy chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries, a British conglomerate that made fertilizer, rayon, gunpowder, TNT, bombs, ammunition, and poison gas. Imperial Chemical was the descendant of Alfred Nobel's explosives company, where McGowan had started working at the age of fi fteen; it had agreements with munitioneers DuPont and, in Germany, I. G. Farben.

McGowan and Churchill had developed a financial intimacy: McGowan was investing some of Churchill's wealth for him in the American stock market. Sir Harry had, Churchill confided to his wife, Clementine, "profound sources of information."

During his multicity tour, Churchill praised big navies, large weapons programs, and Anglo-American cooperation. "We don't want all the good people in the world to disarm while the bad ones remain heavily equipped for war," he told the Iron and Steel Institute later that month. "You are the friends we would like to see most strongly armed."

Mohandas Gandhi walked to the ocean with his followers. He had decided to resist the British imperial salt monopoly. "Watch, I am about to give a signal to the nation," he said, lifting a few grains of sea salt. It was April 6, 1930.

Lord Irwin, the tall, bony viceroy of India, had already arrested many of Gandhi's disciples. He hoped he wouldn't have to arrest Gandhi, though, which would cause unrest:

I was always told that his blood pressure is dangerous and his heart none too good, and I was also told a few days ago that his horoscope predicts that he will die this year, and that is the explanation of this desperate throw. It would be a very happy solution.

But Mohandas Gandhi didn't die. He and sixty thousand followers were imprisoned. In Peshawar, near India's Northwest Frontier, British troops fired on a crowd of Muslim salt protesters, killing some of them. Air raids "cleaned up" the Peshawar region afterward, according to The New York Times.

Mussolini gave a speech to a crowd of blackshirted Fascisti in Florence. "Words are beautiful things," he said, "but rifles, machine guns, ships, and airplanes are more beautiful still." It was May 17, 1930.

Major Frank Pease, the president of the Hollywood Technical Directors Association, a Red-baiting group, saw All Quiet on the Western Front, from Universal Pictures. The movie, about the pointlessness and horror of the Great War, was based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque.

Major Pease disliked the movie; he wrote telegrams to President Hoover and others asking them to ban it. "Its continued uncensored exhibition especially before juveniles will go far to raise a race of yellow streaks, slackers and disloyalists," he said. "Moscow itself could not have produced a more subversive film."

When the movie wasn't banned, Pease sent out a newsletter. "The mesopotamian mongrels guilty of such a criminal film as ALL QUIET were bound to over-reach themselves some time, and this looks like the time," he wrote. "THE TIME TO CALL A HALT IS NOW."

It was May 24, 1930.

The Associated Press sent in a story from Peshawar. It was August 17, 1930. "Chastened by a daily rain of bombs from British planes, raiding Afridi tribesmen were reported today in full retreat to the hills of the northwest frontier," the story said. "Punishment inflicted on the villages by raiding airplanes was said by officals to have had a salutary effect. The disaffected sections are expected to sue for peace in a short time."

The Times of London, in an editorial, blamed the deaths of Afridi tribesmen on Gandhi's propagandists.

In Berlin, Albert Einstein was talking to reporters. It was September 18, 1930. The Hitlerites had triumphed in an election. "There is no reason for despair," Einstein said, "for the Hitler vote is only a symptom, not necessarily of anti-Jewish hatred but of momentary resentment caused by economic misery and unemployment within the ranks of misguided German youth." Einstein observed that during the Dreyfus affair most of the population of France had become anti-Semitic. And then that had changed. "I hope that as soon as the situation improves the German people will also fi nd their road to clarity," he said.

Joseph Goebbels, Reichstag member and party leader of Berlin, led two hundred Brownshirts into a movie theater. It was December 8, 1930. Goebbels had gotten them tickets to All Quiet on the Western Front, which was just out in Germany. Goebbels described Erich Maria Remarque as a "slicked-over fashionmonkey." He said that the film was a "work of filth." His recruits had weapons -- briefcases full of white mice, stink bombs, and sneeze powder. They would defend the honor of the two million who had died in the Great War against naysayers and defeatists such as Remarque.

As the film played, and as Goebbels observed from the balcony, the Brownshirts leaped up and began shouting, "Jews out! Jews out!" They freed the mice and flung the stink bombs and the sneeze powder. There was confusion; the film was stopped. The police arrived and emptied the theater.

The next night, the storm troopers were there again, and there were more of them. Police on horses tried to keep control. Goebbels denounced the fi lm as "Jewish," and then the protestors marched toward a fancy shopping district in Berlin, the Kurfürstendamm, where there were Jewish-owned businesses. "Many a proprietor of a stylish café trembled for its plate-glass front as he saw the young anti-pacifists approaching," reported The New York Times, "but apparently no windows were broken." Twenty-seven people were arrested.

The next night, there was another disturbance; and the night after that; and the night after that. The theater stood empty. The German government, intimidated, suppressed the fi lm. "The film of shame has been banned," wrote Goebbels in his diary. "With that action the National Socialist movement has won its fi ght aginst the dirty machinations of the Jews." It was, he wrote, "a victory that could not have been any grander."

Erich Maria Remarque had been watching the first demonstration. "Nobody was older than twenty," he wrote later. "None of them could have been in the war -- and none of them knew that ten years later they would be in another war and that most of them would be dead before they reached thirty."

Gandhi had replaced Lenin as Churchill's arch-nemesis. "The truth is," Churchill wrote, "Gandhi-ism and all it stands for will, sooner or later, have to be grappled with and finally crushed. It is no use trying to satisfy a tiger by feeding him with cat's-meat." It was December 11, 1930.

A month later, Gandhi was released from jail. He wrote a letter to the viceroy, Lord Irwin. "Dear Friend," he said. "I have received suggestions from friends whose advice I value that I should seek an interview with you."

Irwin invited him to the palace. The two men met and talked. They met again and talked -- and again. Winston Churchill was disgusted. The British government must, he said in a speech, dissociate itself from this "weak, wrong-headed" rapprochement: "It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organising and conducting a defi ant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor. Such a spectacle can only increase the unrest in India." It was February 23, 1931.

Albert Einstein gave a speech at the Ritz-Carlton in New York. There were two ways of resisting war, Einstein said. In countries where there was a draft, the pacifist could refuse military duty. In countries where no draft currently existed, such as the United States and England, the pacifist could publicly declare that he will not, under any circumstances, take up arms.

"If only 2 percent of the men liable for war service were to refuse," Einstein said, "there would not be enough jails in the world to take care of them." He and Mrs. Einstein got an ovation. It was December 14, 1930.

Two editors from a conservative newspaper presented themselves at a house on an elegant street in Munich. It was May 4, 1931. The house was called the Brown House, and it was the headquarters of the National Socialist German Workers Party -- the Nazi Party. A steel magnate, Fritz Thyssen, had helped the party leader, Adolf Hitler, buy it. There was a swastika fl ag fl apping on the roof. Guards checked the two editors' papers, and then Rudolf Hess, Hitler's longtime private secretary, greeted them. Hess had an odd look, one of the visitors thought: in his face there were traces of fanaticism and "mental turmoil." Hess was the man to whom, some years earlier, Hitler had dictated the long monologues that became Mein Kampf.

Hitler was busy for the moment, so Hess took the two of them on a tour. They went down to the basement and saw the fireproof cabinets that held fi les on half a million party members. They went back upstairs and saw swastikas in the ceiling stucco and swastikas in the window glass. They saw a room called the Hall of the Senators, which held sixty-one chairs covered in red leather. Its ceiling was of marble, and it bore an image of the party emblem done in mosaic; on its floor were "vast priceless carpets into which were woven innumerable swastikas." Hess took them up to the courtroom of the National Socialist Party, which had a table in it bearing a gold swastika and a figure of Christ.

After an hour, Hess showed the guests into Hitler's office and made the introductions. Hitler was friendly. He shook hands with them and said, genially, "I know the part which you and your paper play among the German intelligentsia and bourgeoisie." There were two pictures visible: a small one of Mussolini on the desk and a big one of Frederick the Great, in oil, on the wall. Hitler began talking -- sometimes banging his fist on the table, sometimes shouting -- about the communists, the Vatican, the Jews, Freemasonry, the press, Karl Marx, Trotsky, and the city of Berlin, which he called an "international muckheap." One of the editors, Richard Breiting, had worked as a shorthand recorder in the Reichstag, the German Parliament, so he was able to keep up with this stream of excited speech.

"We can achieve something only by fanaticism," said Hitler. "We do not intend to nail every rich Jew to the telegraph poles on the Munich-Berlin road," he said. "That is nonsense." But there will be cases of hardship. "If you use a plane, there will be shavings."

Breiting asked who would supply the administrative brains to run the government, assuming the National Socialist party came to power. Hitler eyed him intently. "I am the master mind and my secret General Staff will produce the brains we need," he said. He flushed and grew angry. "Any resistance will be broken ruthlessly. I will tolerate no opposition." They finished the interview.

Afterward, Breiting wrote a summary. "Hitler exerts over his staff semi-hypnotic influence," he noted. "I was told he sometimes rages around the Brown House like a madman." He was, Breiting thought, a neurasthenic, a man of enormous egotism, with a tendency toward megalomania. Sometimes, it was said, he burst into tears. He left a strong impression, in any case; his chin, under the centerpiece of the mustache, showed great energy. "As he speaks he frequently grimaces as if he would like to crush his opponent with his teeth."

Copyright © 2008 by Nicholson Baker


Excerpted from Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker Copyright © 2008 by Nicholson Baker. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Posted March 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Challenging and intriguing

    This book is a must read for anyone wishing to educate themselves on WWII specifically or war in general. In fact, as one who has read many books on WWII and WWI, I would suggest that this book should be read first. It would provide the student with a solid foundation on which to gauge the veracity of the popularly held historical narrative. Although I think very highly of this book there is one glaring fault which prevents me from giving it a solid five stars. Whether through lack of available material (which I hope is the case) or through an agenda, the coverage of the role of Stalin and the Soviet Union is barely mentioned. Otherwise, this is a must read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2008

    A pacifist look at the 'Good War'

    Baker's Human Smoke is a unique format for a history book. Composed of excerpts from first hand accounts of what both the men in power and the powerless experienced, Human Smoke is one of the first works that chooses not to celebrate the 'righteousness' of the Allies. Baker barely interupts the flow of accounts, leaving the words of those who lived and died to form his argument. He shows the follies of both sides and leaves the reader with some interesting what if? scenarios. Did the actions of Churchill exacerbate the suffering in continental Europe during the war? Did America become involved not due to some noble defense of liberty and life, but for mere monetary and political reasons? Baker raises these questions and more yet chooses not to explicitly answer them. While this is somehwat frustrating at first, his message becomes clearer as the reader progresses. Pacifist sentiment permeates the book and underlines the utter futility of war. Human Smoke is a great new look at a subject that has become inundated with bland, jingoistic, celebratory drivel.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted December 22, 2008

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