America's first hostage crises date back to its formative years, when Muslim pirates operating out of city-state ports along North Africa's Barbary Coast preyed on its merchant vessels in the Mediterranean. Here, with considerable analytic flair, Whipple (The Challenge, 1987) sorts out Washington's often irresolute response to these seizures and the incarceration of US sailors. In his engrossing narrative (which neither ignores nor belabors obvious parallels to latter-day events in the Middle East), the author skillfully combines vivid accounts of derring-do with shrewd appraisals of contemporary politics and diplomacy. Among other events, the many-splendored story line encompasses the first US attempt to overthrow the head of a hostile government (the bashaw of Tripoli), plus America's initial effort to isolate another nation via blockade—and bombardment. Covered as well are our nation's earliest debates on defense budgets, foreign intervention, the President's war-making powers, and allied issues that have proved nothing if not perdurable. In addition to the satisfyingly treacherous villains, the plot features a great many authentic American heroes and more than a few shady middlemen offering to swap arms for captives. Standouts in the white-hat ranks include Edward Preble (a quarter-deck tyrant who commanded the first US Navy forces to go into battle), Stephen Decatur (then a junior officer of notable boldness), and William Eaton. As a self-styled general, Eaton led a rabble of Arabs, Christians, and eight US Marines out of Egypt across the Libyan desert to free the 307-man crew of an American warship captured by the Tripolitans. How legates with their own agendas cheated him (and the US) of a hard-won victory at the 11th hour makes a fascinating and cautionary tale. Americana at its rousing and resonant best.
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