A compact, engrossing historical meditation with clear relevance to current controversies over race and punishment.




Disconcerting exposé of a little-recalled era of death penalty discrimination in the U.S. military.

Serrano (Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil War, 2013, etc.), a Pulitzer Prize–winning former Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, unearths a disheartening tale of unequal justice during the period between World War II and the major events of the civil rights movement regarding soldiers who received the ultimate sanction for committing rape or murder. Yet once on the military’s death row at Fort Leavenworth prison, their fates obeyed the color line: “All on death row, white and black, clearly recognized that in the late 1950s, none were treated alike….Eight white soldiers spared, eight black soldiers hanged.” Serrano focuses on the crime and punishment of John Bennett, an uneducated black soldier from impoverished Jim Crow roots, who drunkenly assaulted a young Austrian girl; although she survived, a court-martial swiftly sentenced him to death. After several years, as the backing for capital punishment appeared to wane, he was last on death row, fueling support for commutation of his sentence, as had been done for white soldiers who had committed similar crimes. Over six years of legal battles, his case attracted prominent supporters like psychiatrist Karl Menninger and prison doctors who argued his lifelong epilepsy might’ve influenced the crime. Still, the military’s position remained that Bennett’s death “was necessary.” Because the arc of Bennett’s sad legacy is straightforward, the author builds the narrative in engaging digressions, covering the development of Leavenworth, Dwight Eisenhower’s frosty relationship with desegregation, and the lawyers and activists who mounted a lonely crusade on behalf of the condemned black soldiers. Serrano paces his slim account for maximum suspense, but Bennett’s execution feels increasingly foreordained, particularly when the putatively liberal John F. Kennedy declines to second-guess his predecessor. The author’s scrupulous research ably captures a shameful time during the military’s halting journey toward integration.

A compact, engrossing historical meditation with clear relevance to current controversies over race and punishment.

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8070-6096-4

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Beacon

Review Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet


For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet