Monday, April 28, 2008

The Secret Histories 

Review mentioned here.

The Secret Histories
By John S. Friedman

It’s no secret anymore that the twentieth century was full of secrets, some valid some invalid. John S. Friedman has collected excerpts from books on some of these secrets from World War II through Abu Ghraib. He includes the original exposes on the My Lai massacre, the use of LSD by the CIA, IBM’s role in the Holocaust, the FBI’s investigations of Martin Luther King, the tobacco hearings, and Exxon Valdez, among others. So many of these stories are common knowledge that it’s almost a surprise that, according to the introduction by James Carroll, the government and media worked to prevent these stories from being received by the general public. And the public still tries to keep secrets from itself, he claims, citing the smoker who knows cigarettes cause cancer but believes one more puff won’t hurt. Friedman acknowledges that governments have always had secrets, but only with the modern democracy has the number of secrets increased dramatically. He quotes a claim that if every newspaper devoted every page to printing all the classified documents the US government created the day before, there would be no room for other news. But despite the desire for secrecy, journalists dig to reveal these secrets. Each of these stories was groundbreaking when first told. Some journalists were exiled from their countries. Some were ignored. But these stories are known now. He begins the book with the relatively uncontroversial story of the Ultra department of code breakers during World War II. He excerpts a chapter from Edwin Black’s book IBM and the Holocaust, including the unfortunate statement "I want the full story understood in context. Skipping around in this book will only lead to flawed and erroneous conclusions. So if you intend to skim, or rely on selected sections, please do not read the book at all" (21). But the rest of Friedman’s excerpts seem to hold up on their own, and they serve as introductions into pieces of history, for example the Korean War or the J. Edgar Hoover FBI, that the average reader may know little about. Hopefully, this collection of excerpts will serve as a springboard into reading the complete books. The topics are worth it, and Friedman’s introduction is a fascinating read. (Review by Janine Peterson)

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