December 03, 2009


They Dared Return: The True Story of Jewish Spies Behind the Lines in Nazi Germany. By Patrick K. O’Donnell. Da Capo. $26.

The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness. By Harlow Giles Unger. Da Capo. $26.

     Lives formed by war do not always move easily into peace – assuming they even survive the conflict. They Dared Return is the nonfictional side of a story woefully but typically overdramatized by Quentin Tarantino in the film Inglourious Basterds. Patrick O’Donnell’s book is the World War II tale of five Jews who, having reached safety in the United States, joined the Office of Strategic Services (precursor of the CIA) and returned to Nazi-occupied Europe to ferret out information that could help end the war with an Allied victory. On one level, O’Donnell’s book is like many other previously untold tales of that war, filled with narrow escapes, captures, astonishing acts of “greatest generation” heroism, and intricate retellings of events that were all in a day’s work for everyday heroes of the time – but seem in retrospect to be instances of astonishing bravery. On another level, They Dared Return is about what really matters to people, in time of war and afterwards – for, astonishingly, all five OSS volunteers profiled here survived the war. But how they survived it was very different, as O’Donnell points out after their story is told. One, Alfred Rosenthal, “sadly couldn’t put the war behind him and passed away during the 1950s.” But another, the book’s primary focus, Frederick Mayer, is still alive at age 89 and “still chops wood every day, mows the lawn, and serves food to the poor every week.” His is the kind of quiet heroism that revives a reader’s faith that there is something good in humanity – even as O’Donnell’s stories of Nazi torture and atrocities make one wonder. The actual events of the book will come as no surprise to anyone who has read the many, many volumes of heroism under fire in World War II: “Staying in the uniform of a German officer for the next three weeks, Mayer began talking to different people in Innsbruck, establishing contacts among the nascent anti-Nazi resistance in the area.” Mayer told one Nazi official, after Hitler’s death, “‘I will make you and your staff my prisoners and guarantee your lives. …I had no authority to take anyone prisoner or guarantee their safety, I just thought it was a good idea,’ Meyer modestly recalled sixty-three years later.” It is ultimately this postwar modesty that stays with the reader as much as the hair-raising events, narrow escapes and constant dangers of the war itself. Yes, They Dared Return is just another in a long line of real-life World War II adventures; but it is also a story of survival in peace, when all one faces is time and the inexorable march of mortality.

     It was a much earlier war – the American Revolution – that was formative for the nation’s fifth president, James Monroe (1758-1831). Born into colonial America, Monroe fought in the Revolution (he needed three months to recuperate from a wound) and afterwards rose to become Secretary of State and Secretary of War under James Madison – helping lead the young country through the War of 1812. Monroe served two terms as President (1817-1825) and led the United States into its first sustained period of peace, thanks in part to the Monroe Doctrine (1823). Harlow Giles Unger correctly points out that Monroe brought peace by establishing or strengthening the country’s ability to make war: he built a strong army and significantly expanded the navy. He also rescued the nation from economic calamity, partly through a government spending program that sounds, in retrospect, remarkably modern: Monroe convinced Congress to establish a national bank that let the federal government borrow money to build an extensive transportation network (of roads and canals). His plans were so successful that Monroe did something that is not modern at all: he convinced Congress to abolish all internal taxes. Unger argues in The Last Founding Father that the praise lavished on Presidents Adams and Jefferson is misplaced, with Adams’ decision to go to war against France and Jefferson’s embargo on international trade standing as disastrous decisions that nearly ruined a fledgling nation militarily and economically. Monroe, in Unger’s view, was the restorer of peace and prosperity and the establisher of a period of expansion in which the United States truly solidified itself as a nation and a power to be reckoned with. In this narrative, Monroe becomes president only in the last 80 pages; the first 260-plus show him developing to the point from which his lasting accomplishments (which included the acquisition of Florida) would be launched. The result is that Monroe emerges as more than “just” a president: he comes across as a multifaceted human being. Unger’s writing style can be a bit stolid: “By the end of June, the American embargo had combined with an embargo by Napoleon on British goods in Europe to bring British industrial production and foreign trade to a near halt.” But there are many quotations here from Monroe himself, as well as from other figures of the period, and they go a long way toward making both Monroe and this period of United States history come alive.

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