The Untold Story: How America Became a Dangerous Empire
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The title of Oliver Stone’s “The Untold History of the United States” is a bit of a misnomer, both as a book and a Showtime series. It’s more precisely a reinterpretation of official U.S. history over the past century or so. You might call it “The Little Understood Back Story of America’s Imperial Era.”
The 750-page book, which seems to be more the work of Stone’s collaborator, American University history professor Peter Kuznick, picks up the tale around the time of the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19thCentury, with the U.S. conquest and occupation of the Philippines.
What’s relatively “untold” about this history is the impact of some little remembered decisions, such as the Democratic Party’s replacing Vice President Henry Wallace with Missouri Sen. Harry Truman in 1944, and some ideologically suppressed memories, like how the Soviet Union broke the back of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich in World War II.
While much of this context is interesting, even revelatory for a contemporary audience, if you were expecting Stone to push the envelope on new historical disclosures on important events – such as John F. Kennedy’s presidency and his assassination – you might find the material a tad thin and disappointing.
The chief point of the book and the series – at least the first halves that I’m dealing with here – is that U.S. history could have gone in a very different and a much more positive direction if the United States had not locked itself on a course toward worldwide empire.
For instance, Stone and Kuznick imply that if Franklin Roosevelt had lived longer – or if his favored subordinate, Henry Wallace, had succeeded him as President – the worst aspects of the Cold War might have been averted.
If the United States under Harry Truman hadn’t picked up the mantle of Western imperialism from the diminished European powers, millions of lives might have been saved; the United States might have more effectively addressed its own economic and social problems; and many people in the Third World might not have been so profoundly alienated from the U.S.
Stone and Kuznick suggest that an alternative future was available to the United States, but that political, economic and ideological pressures sent the nation down a path that transformed the Republic into an Empire.
The Back Story
The back story of the Stone-Kuznick collaboration dates back to 1996, when Kuznick started an American University history class entitled “Oliver Stone’s America.” That first year, Stone made an appearance as a guest lecturer.
Kuznick and Stone then decided to cooperate on a TV documentary about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. This idea somehow grew into this ten-hour mini-series and its companion book. [New York Times, Nov. 22, 2012]
In an appearance with Stone on Tavis Smiley’s program, Kuznick said this history is told from the point of view of the victims, implying that it was written from the bottom up. Not so.
The book is not a sociological history written from a socio-economic perspective covering things like the plight of minorities. It does touch on those issues, but that is not its prime focus by any means.
The book’s real focus is on America’s foreign relations of the 20th Century and on the key figures who shaped – or failed to shape – those policies. One of the volume’s major tasks is to re-evaluate two people: Harry Truman and Henry Wallace.
This is an important historical issue because Truman replaced Wallace as Vice President in 1944 and then became President in 1945 when Roosevelt died. If Truman had not replaced Wallace, Wallace would have become President and might have shaped the post-war period very differently, with less antagonism toward the Soviet Union.
Wallace had been Secretary of Agriculture during the New Deal. And according to Arthur Schlesinger, he was very good in that position. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 91) He was then Roosevelt’s personal choice for VP in 1940.
According to the authors, FDR said he would refuse to run for President for an unprecedented third term unless Wallace joined him on the ticket. (pgs. 92-93) By all indications, Wallace was a populist.
For instance, the book contrasts the famous Henry Luce quote about the 1900s being the American Century with Wallace’s reply that it must be “the century of the Common Man.” (p. 101) The authors then contrast Wallace’s view of the Soviet Union, which was much closer to Roosevelt’s during the war, with that of Truman’s belligerence.
The Rise of Truman
How did Truman replace Wallace on the ticket in the first place? FDR’s health was already failing in 1944. This meant two things to the party bosses: 1.) He would not make it through a fourth term, and 2.) They had to stop the too-liberal Wallace from becoming President.
Realizing that Roosevelt was in a weakened state, the bosses enacted what came to be known as “Pauley’s Coup”, since it was led by California millionaire and party treasurer Edwin Pauley. (pgs. 139-40) Pauley was also running the convention and was good friends with Sen. Truman.
Pauley’s group put together a list of alternative candidates to Wallace. Truman was the name that was least objectionable to everyone. In spite of the backroom dealings, Wallace still almost survived.
Sen. Claude Pepper of Florida approached the podium to place his name in nomination. If that had been done, Wallace surely would have won by popular acclamation. But before Pepper could do so, the session was adjourned. (p. 143)
For two reasons, the authors see this as a turning point. First, they feel that the atomic bombs would never have been dropped on Japan if Wallace had become President at FDR’s death. And second, they feel that the Cold War would never have gone into high gear with Wallace in the White House.
There is certainly a lot of evidence in support of those two arguments. Truman was not really well versed in foreign policy at the time he became President. FDR had largely acted as his own Secretary of State.
And, during the war, Roosevelt had tried to serve as a kind of bumper between Stalin and the hard-line anti-communist Winston Churchill. Roosevelt and Cordell Hull, his cooperative Secretary of State, managed to hold off the hardliners, including Churchill. This arrangement fell apart once Hull retired in late 1944 and Roosevelt died in April 1945.
Suddenly, the thinly qualified Truman was in the White House – and was much more malleable in the guiding hands of the hardliners. Little about Truman qualified him for the extraordinary geopolitical and moral issues he would face.
Truman had failed at three businesses before he became the creation of Missouri political boss Tom Pendergast, who started Truman off as a judge, though Truman had never graduated from law school. Pendergast then got Truman elected to the U.S. Senate.
When Roosevelt died, Truman felt overwhelmed, since he had only been VP for three months. Because Roosevelt had been ill during those months, the two men did not see each other very much.
The Hardliners Emerge
Once Roosevelt was dead, the hardliners on the Russia issue took over, including Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, Navy Secretary James Forrestal, Gen. Leslie Groves, and Churchill.
Truman began to favor Churchill and England in the allied relationship, something Roosevelt tried to avoid. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 182) Byrnes, a South Carolina politician with little foreign experience, told Russian Foreign Minister V. H. Molotov that Truman planned on using the atomic bomb to get the USSR to comply with American demands on post-war behavior. (ibid. p. 184)
Wallace, who stayed on as Secretary of Commerce, was being marginalized. Truman nominated financier Bernard Baruch to head the Atomic Energy Commission, which oversaw development of nuclear strategy. Baruch laid down terms that all but eliminated the Soviets from joining in the effort.
Finally, Truman invited Churchill to America to make his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in March 1946. As the authors note, it was that militant, bellicose speech which “delivered a sharp, perhaps fatal blow to any prospects for post-war comity.” (p. 191)
A few months later, Henry Wallace tried to counter the sharpness of Churchill’s speech at Madison Square Garden. There, appearing with Paul Robeson and Claude Pepper, Wallace pleaded for a foreign policy that tried to understand the fears of Russia, that tried to meet her halfway. After all, he argued, Russia had been invaded twice by Germany in less than 30 years and had suffered over 20 million dead by the blitzkrieg alone.
Wallace also asked that America not follow the British imperial model in the developing world. And he added that the proper body to have far-flung foreign bases around the world was the United Nations, not the United States. (p. 201)
The speech was sharply criticized in the mainstream press as being a straight right cross to the chin of Byrnes. Even though Truman had read the speech in advance, he fired Wallace, thus eliminating one of the few remaining voices for a more conciliatory approach toward the Soviet Union. (Pgs. 202-04)
The ouster of Wallace also was the death knell for any hope that FDR’s more balanced strategy toward the World War II alliance would survive into the post-war era. The same month of Wallace’s speech, Elliot Roosevelt published an article in Look detailing how Truman and Churchill had derailed his father’s plans for peace after the war. (ibid, p. 200) Churchill feared Wallace so much that he placed spies around him. (p. 138)
This aspect of the Stone-Kuznick book directly ties into the decision to use the atomic bomb. The first point to recall is one that is mentioned by the authors in passing, that the Germans had abandoned their atomic bomb research. Yet, that research was the reason that FDR approved the Manhattan Project in the first place. (p. 134)
Therefore, by the time frame of 1944-45, when the testing of this devastating new weapon was approaching, the reason d’être for the bomb – to serve as a deterrent to a German bomb – had disappeared. But Truman still used it on the remaining Axis Power belligerent, Japan.
Why Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
The question has always been: Was it necessary to use the bomb to induce Japan into surrendering? Or were diplomacy and a second-front invasion by Russia in 1945 enough to get a surrender without either the bomb or an American invasion? (A particularly good polemic against using the bomb is the late Stewart Udall’s The Myths of August.)
Soviet leader Josef Stalin had promised Roosevelt that he would open up a second front against Japan three months after Germany was defeated – and Stalin kept his promise. On Aug. 8 – two days after the first U.S. atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and one day before the second bomb destroyed Nagasaki – the Soviets launched a three-pronged invasion of Japanese-held Manchuria.
The Soviet invasion was so successful that the Manchurian emperor was captured, and the offensive spread to Korea, Sakhalin Island and the Kuril Islands. Stone and Kuznick note that Japan, which had already suffered devastating fire-bombings of major cities, seemed less concerned about the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki than the dramatic loss of territory to an old enemy, the Russians. Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, after the Russian offensive had secured Manchuria.
The book also notes that in the war’s final months, the hardliners in Truman’s administration, like Byrnes, insisted on an “unconditional surrender” by Japan. To the Japanese, this meant the emperor had to go and that Japanese society would have to be completely restructured.
Yet, there were voices outside the White House, like Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who advised Truman to let the Japanese keep the emperor in order to make it easier for them to surrender. MacArthur was confident that maintaining the emperor would be a help and not a hindrance to rebuilding the country.
The irony of this protracted argument is that, after Hirohito’s announcement of surrender, the allies did let the emperor stay. And he reigned until his death in 1989. Indeed, Hirohito had been looking for a way to surrender since June 1945.
Today it seems fairly clear that the combination of the Soviet invasion and an altering of the unconditional surrender terms could have avoided the hundreds of thousands of deaths and maimings brought on by the two atomic bombs, and perhaps stopped the dawn of the atomic age.
However, both Byrnes and the military commander of the Manhattan Project, Leslie Groves, admitted that they wished to use the weapons not so much to induce Japan to surrender, but to warn the Russians what they were now up against in the post-World War II world. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 160)
As wiser men like Wallace foresaw, this threat backfired. Stalin ordered a ratcheting up of his scientific team to hurry along the Soviet version of the bomb. (ibid, p. 165)
Misreading the Soviets
Truman also miscalculated regarding the Soviet capability to duplicate the U.S. development of a nuclear bomb. When Truman asked the scientific supervisor of the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer, how long it would take for the Russians to come up with their version of the bomb, Oppenheimer said he was not sure. Truman said, “I’ll tell you. Never.” (p. 179)
The Russians exploded their first atomic bomb just four years later. The nuclear arms race was off and running.
The other major argument in support of Truman’s decision to drop the A-Bombs on two Japanese cities has been that lives were saved by avoiding a U.S. invasion of the Japanese mainland, a project codenamed Downfall and scheduled to begin in December 1945. In other words, there were still several months to negotiate Japan’s surrender.
The hurried-up decision to use the bomb seems to stem from the fact that Truman had told Stalin at the Potsdam Conference that the U.S. now had the weapon. (Stone and Kuznick, pgs. 162-65) So, just four days after the conclusion of Potsdam, the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Then, one day after the Russians invaded Manchuria, the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
Still, Stone and Kuznick recognize that their historically well-supported view is considered contrarian to mainstream U.S. history. That’s because the political and historical establishment has tried to prop up Truman as something like a good-to-near-great President.
The reason that people like George Will and Condoleezza Rice do so is fairly obvious. To them, the Cold War and the nuclear arms race were things to be thankful for. But the national mythology about Harry Truman goes further. One needs only consider the enormous success of David McCullough’s 1992 biography of the man, eponymously called Truman. For me, and others, this was a 990-page appeal for Truman’s canonization.
To figure that out, one only has to compare how many pages McCullough spent on Truman’s dramatic come-from-behind victory in the presidential race of 1948 (a lot) versus how many he spent on the decision to drop the atomic bomb (a lot fewer). But McCullough’s book was met with great acclamation. It became a huge bestseller and was made into a TV movie, establishing McCullough as the successor to Stephen Ambrose as the agreed upon historian for the MSM.
A Misleading Claim
The problem with the acclaim is that, as it turned out, McCullough cheated on a key point in defending Truman’s decision to use the A-Bomb. As Stone and Kuznick show, in both their book and film, Truman always (unconvincingly) maintained that the reason he dropped the bombs was to avoid an American invasion of the island. Truman thought that hundreds of thousands of American lives — at times he said a million — would have been lost in an amphibious assault.
In his book, McCullough tried to back up Truman’s claim, by citing a memorandum by Thomas Handy of Gen. George Marshall’s staff saying that an invasion of Japan could cost anywhere from 500,000 to a million lives. McCullough added that this memo showed “that figures of such magnitude were then in use at the highest levels.” (McCullough, Truman, p. 401)
This memo would certainly fortify Truman’s ex post facto defense. The problem is that when writer Philip Nobile went looking for the document, he couldn’t find it. McCullough had left it out of his footnotes, an omission that grew more suspicious when we learn from Stanford historian Barton Bernstein that no such memo by Handy exists.
Bernstein, an acknowledged authority on Truman, told Nobile that the memo in question was actually written by former President Herbert Hoover, who was no military expert and failed to sign it. Clipped to the Hoover memo was a critique of Hoover by Handy. The critique repudiated Hoover’s estimates as being too high.
In other words, McCullough presented in his book the opposite of what Handy’s meaning was. Making it even worse for McCullough is the fact that Bernstein had exposed all this Handy/Hoover mishmash twice before, once in a periodical and once in a book. And that was five years before McCullough’s book was published. (Click here for Nobile’s article http://hnn.us/articles/157.html)
Yet this shoddy scholarship — if that is what it was — gets ignored in this battle over, as journalist Robert Parry has termed it, the stolen historical narrative of America.
Reconsidering the Eastern Front
Another major theme of the Stone/Kuznick book is that, contrary to what textbooks and Hollywood films likeSaving Private Ryan imply, World War II in Europe was not actually won by the Americans. Or the British. It was really won by the Russians.
The story of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s massive invasion of the Soviet Union, has been relatively ignored in high school texts, although college texts have been improving on this as of late. There is little doubt today by any serious military historian that the German defeats on the Eastern Front were the primary reason for the fall of the Third Reich.
In the last 20 years, with the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been much good work done out of the Russian archives which allow historians to etch into the saga of World War II the huge military campaigns on the Russian front from 1941-43. This has allowed for the proper crediting of the importance of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the commander who was most responsible for thwarting Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.
For his battlefield successes, Zhukov deserves to be mentioned with the likes of Eisenhower, MacArthur and Montgomery as one of the icons of World War II. Yet, because he was Russian, he is generally ignored.
But it was Zhukov who wisely advised Stalin to abandon Kiev in 1941 and convinced Stalin that Leningrad was the key to their defense. It also was Zhukov whom Stalin sent to save Moscow after the original commanding officer, S. M. Budyonny, could not be located. And, most importantly, it was Zhukov who commanded the counteroffensive at Stalingrad, now widely considered the turning point of World War II. It was also Zhukov who advised the strategy that stopped the last German offensive in 1943 at the great tank battle at Kursk.
As the book notes, Hitler had arranged an invasion force of nearly four million men to attack Russia in 1941, still the largest invasion in the history of warfare. At one time, the Russians were facing about 200 divisions of the Wehrmacht. The British and Americans never faced even close to that many.
But further, Barbarossa accounted for 95 percent of all Wehrmacht casualties from 1941-44 as five major battles were fought on the Eastern Front: Kiev, Leningrad, Moscow, Stalingrad, and Kursk. After Stalingrad and Kursk, the Germans were so decimated they could launch no more offensives in the East.
The rest of the war in Europe was essentially anti-climactic. The Soviet victories on the Eastern Front had doomed the Nazis, not the fabled battles at Normandy and elsewhere on the Western Front.
Stone and Kuznick note that Stalin pressed for a second front almost immediately after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and Roosevelt agreed. But Churchill argued for a delay in opening up a second front in France in 1942. Instead he wanted to open up a front in North Africa, which would lead to Egypt and the Middle East, therefore preserving British interest in oil and their colonial mandates there.
As a side effect, the Russians would endure the main brunt of the Nazi war machine longer. (Stone and Kuznick, pgs. 104-05) In the Showtime version, Truman is quoted as saying that in his opinion if Germany was winning the battle, America ought to help Russia. He then added that if Russia started to win, the U.S. should help Germany. Truman said the idea was to kill off as many from each country as possible. This is the man David McCullough has beatified.
Earlier in their book, Stone and Kuznick also trained their guns on another overrated president, Woodrow Wilson. Like Truman, who actually tried to join the Ku Klux Klan at one time, Wilson also was a racist who screened D. W. Griffith’s heroic picture about the Klan, Birth of a Nation, in the White House.
Wilson, although ostensibly a Democrat and a progressive reformer, was really a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He once wrote, “There is nothing in which I am more interested than the fullest development of the trade of this country and its righteous conquest of foreign markets.” (Stone and Kuznick, p. 2)
Wilson also clearly favored America getting into World War I on the side of the British. As the book notes, and as Secretary of State Robert Lansing tried to conceal, the Lusitania was carrying arms to England when she was struck by a German U-boat. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 6) The House of Morgan also had guaranteed so many loans to England during the war that it would have been disastrous for the American banking system if England had been defeated.
Then, once in the war, Wilson did all he could to stifle dissent against it. He set up a propaganda arm called the Committee on Public Information headed by newspaperman George Creel. But Creel also propagandized against the Russians by spreading the lie that both Trotsky and Lenin were German agents. (ibid, p. 9)
The coercion of public opinion became an enduring part of American war culture. Professors who dissented from the war were fired from Columbia University. Socialist politician Eugene Debs was imprisoned. Anti-German attitudes were encouraged and fostered by Creel’s outfit, leading to lynchings. (ibid, pgs. 11-16)
And when it was all over, Wilson failed in large part to gain his sacred Fourteen Points, the basis for which Versailles was supposed be an honorable peace, a peace, as Wilson termed it, for all time.
As the authors note, one reason Wilson failed at Versailles was that he did not make the Fourteen Points part and parcel of the United States entering the war in the first place. If he had he would have had much more leverage.
Although Jon Weiner of The Nation has said the Stone-Kuznick book ignores or discounts the influence of Wall Street on historical events, that is not really accurate. In their discussion of the Eisenhower years, for instance, the authors sketch in the background of the Dulles brothers, John Foster who was Ike’s Secretary of State and Allen who became Director of the CIA.
Both men came from the giant corporate law firm Sullivan and Cromwell. There John was managing partner and Allen was senior partner. Their interest in corporate affairs influenced the decisions the brothers made while in government. (Stone and Kuznick, pgs. 253-54)
I actually think this subject merited more space since one can make a good case that when Allen Dulles came to power at the Agency, he more or less revolutionized the CIA and the uses to which it would be put. And this could not have been done without the help of his brother at State, for Foster was personally friendly with Ike and he would at times remove ambassadors in countries which resisted the siren song of covert action, one which the brothers found so enthralling.
The Guatemalan Coup
Although I wish the authors had done more with this issue of covert action, the book does a good job in its description of the first two famous overthrows that the Dulles brothers managed, i.e. in Iran in 1953 and in Guatemala in 1954. The second account is one of the best summaries I have read.
Before he left office Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz accurately stated, “The United Fruit Company, in collaboration with the governing circles of the United States, is responsible for what is happening to us.” He then warned, also accurately, that Guatemala would now descend into “twenty years of fascist bloody tyranny.”
After the Guatemalan coup, John Foster Dulles applauded the victory of democracy over Soviet communism and stated the Guatemalans themselves had cured the situation. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 265)
In this chapter on the Fifties, the book also accurately states that McCarthyism in reality was supplied by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. (Ibid, pgs. 231-34) And that its real objective was to eliminate the Left in the United States so there would never be any viable socialist or communist party here.
I wish Stone and Kuznick had explicitly noted that it was not illegal to be a communist in the United States at the time of McCarthy. Therefore, what happened in the Fifties was a collapse of the whole civil liberties system which should have protected his victims from government-directed repression.
For me, the most disappointing chapter in the first half of the book is on John F. Kennedy. The first third of this chapter wraps up the Eisenhower years, devoting attention to Ike’s Farewell Address and its warning about “the military-industrial complex.” But the authors do not mention the U-2 incident which marred the Paris Peace Conference and may have led to what Eisenhower said in that address. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 289)
The book offers a fairly simplistic account of Kennedy’s political career prior to 1960, calling him a Cold War liberal who ran in 1960 as a hawk. This was the first time I felt the book really fell down in its scholarship because to make this rubric stick, there is no mention of Kennedy’s battles with Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers in the Fifties over things like Vietnam and Algeria.
The authors then say that, under Kennedy, foreign policy was still in the hands of the Establishment figures from the Council on Foreign Relations, without saying that Kennedy was never in the CFR. Although the book does mention Kennedy’s try for a cease-fire in Laos, it completely ignores his efforts to beat back the colonialists in Congo and Indonesia in 1961.
The authors say Operation Mongoose against Cuba began in November 1961 and that one of the objectives was to assassinate Fidel Castro. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 304) I was really surprised to see that in a book co-authored by Oliver Stone, since the operation did not actually go into effect until February 1962, when CIA officer Ted Shackley arrived in Miami to take over the JM/Wave station. (William Turner and Warren Hinckle, Deadly Secrets, p. 126) And as the CIA Inspector General’s report on the Castro assassination plots reveals, the killing of Castro was never part of the Mongoose operation.
The book then blames the Missile Crisis on Mongoose. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 304) Yet anyone can see by readingThe Kennedy Tapes that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s agenda was really to attain a first-strike capability in order to deal with the question of Berlin. (May and Zelikow, p. 678)
The discussion of Kennedy and Vietnam is also disappointing. The book states that Kennedy was intent on standing up to the communists in Vietnam (Stone and Kuznick, p. 304), to which I would reply, “With what? Fifteen thousand advisers against the combined forces of both the Viet Cong and North Vietnam?”
I was surprised to see some of the sourcing in this chapter. In addition to citing JFK’s purported mistress Mimi Alford, a lot of it was to books like David Halberstam’s obsolete and discredited The Best and the Brightest and to New York Times’ correspondent Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes. There was not one footnote to John Newman’s milestone book JFK and Vietnam, or to works based on the declassified record like James Blight’s Virtual JFK. This baffles me.
And the authors fail to mention a wonderful meeting which could have provided an ironic cap to the chapter on Kennedy (which, at least does end with Kennedy seeking détente with the Russians and Cubans.)
This meeting was occasioned by Harry Truman’s op-ed in the Washington Post on Dec. 22, 1963, a month after JFK’s assassination.In that essay, Truman wrote that the CIA had strayed far afield from the mission he had originally envisioned for it, i.e. an emphasis on objective intelligence gathering and analysis.
It turns out that ex-CIA Director Allen Dulles, who at the time was on the Warren Commission investigating JFK’s murder, was so upset by the op-ed’s implication that he personally visited Truman at his home in April 1964. Dulles tried to get Truman to retract the criticism.
Dulles tried to persuade Truman that newspaper articles at the time of JFK’s assassination saying the CIA had taken over Vietnam policy from Kennedy were wrong. (James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, Second Edition, pgs. 379-81) That would have made an ironic and symmetrical tie between Truman, Kennedy and the Dulles brothers.
But – despite my various concerns about shortcomings – there is much to like in this book. The second part deals with the period from the Johnson administration to Barack Obama’s first term. Stay tuned.
Jim DiEugenio is a researcher and writer on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and other mysteries of that era. His new book is Destiny Betrayed (Second Edition) from Skyhorse Publishing.