Inward Empire summer reading list, 2019

For the curious, here’s what I’m (aspiring to) read this summer. I’ll be posting reflections on these as I go.

Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America

Greg Grandin, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America

Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States

Walter Lafeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America

Stephen R. Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War

Clay Risen, The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century

Daniel Treuer, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present

and, just for kicks…

Stephen King, 11/22/63


Gaming the domino theory in Twilight Struggle

“… a highly possible Soviet breakthrough might open three continents to Soviet penetration. Like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the east. It would also carry infection to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and to Europe through Italy and France …” – Dean Acheson

“If Southeast Asia is also swept by Communism, we shall have suffered a major political rout the repercussions of which will be felt throughout the rest of the world, especially in the Middle East and in a then critically exposed Australia.” – NSC 48/1

“Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the ‘falling domino’ principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly.” – President Eisenhower

Image result for twilight struggle

Recently I’ve become totally addicted to Twilight Struggle, a Cold War-themed board game (also available in an excellent digital version). The more I play, the more impressed I am with how the game models the domino theory, one of the fundamental ideas in US foreign policy during our half-decade struggle with the Soviet Union.

American statesmen developed the domino theory in the late 1940s and early ’50s, a time when communist movements were spreading rapidly around the world. As the quotations above make clear, these statesmen believed that communists in places like Greece or China would try to spread their movements to neighboring countries and regions. A communist regime, even in a tiny country that posed no direct threat to America, could destabilize an entire region if left unchecked. Therefore, it was vital for the US to contain communism wherever it popped up.

The mechanics of Twilight Struggle simulate this theory beautifully. It’s a two-player game (one player is the US, one is the USSR), and the board is divided into nations and regions. Players take turns placing influence around the board, and can win the game by scoring points based on controlling different regions (there are other paths to victory, too, like winning the space race).

So where’s the domino theory? It comes with a brilliantly simple twist: players can only place influence in a nation where they already have it, or in neighboring nations. Just like Acheson and Ike said, influence spreads in a linear fashion from one country to the next, and players who ignore enemy moves will find an entire region slipping swiftly into their opponent’s camp.

The one exception to the linear spread of influence comes with cards, which the US and USSR take turns playing. Each card represents a real-life event from 1945-89: Nasser taking power in Egypt, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the OPEC embargo, Kruschev declaring “We Will Bury You!”, and so on. Cards allow players to break the rules of how influence spreads by suddenly opening up new fronts around the world. The USSR, for example, starts the game with no influence in Latin America or the Caribbean, but playing the “Fidel” card allows them to take control of Cuba.

The cards make for fantastic and nail-biting twists and turns in each game of TS, but they also contribute to the game’s simulation of American ideas in the era of the domino theory.  For much of the Cold War, US policy-makers tended to view communist movements in the “Third World” as fronts of a single global movement led by Moscow. This is exactly the way it is in TS: it’s the USSR that decides when Vietnam revolts, when Nasser or Fidel take power, or when communist agitation sweeps South Africa. The same goes for events that favor the US. It’s up to the players when pro-democracy agitation breaks out in Eastern Europe, for example.                                 Image result for twilight struggle fidel

The card mechanic sacrifices historical accuracy while hewing more closely to the imagined dynamics of the domino theory. As the game’s creators say in their design notes:
Twilight Struggle basically accepts all of the internal logic of the Cold War as true—even those parts of it that are demonstrably false. Therefore, the only relationships that matter in this game are those between a nation and the superpowers. The world provides a convenient chess board for US and Soviet ambitions, but all other nations are mere pawns (with perhaps the occasional bishop) in that game. Even China is abstracted down to a card that is passed between the two countries. Furthermore, not only does the domino theory work, it is a prerequisite for extending influence into a region. Historians would rightly dispute all of these assumptions, but in keeping with the design philosophy, we think they make a better game.”

In reality, Soviet and American leaders struggled to control movements around the world. Leaders from Venezuela to Vietnam had their own agendas, and popular movements (even massive ones, like the revolutions of 1989) often caught American and Soviet leaders off-guard. TS simulates this lack of total control to an extent by randomizing the cards players hold each round. It also frequently forces players into situations where they have to play a card that favors their opponent. Still, it’s the superpowers that decide when, and sometimes if, these events take place.

So while TS isn’t a great simulation of the dynamics of the real Cold War, it is stone-cold brilliant at depicting the way US policy-makers imagined the conflict. On top of that, it’s a phenomenal strategy game. A glance at the Twilight Strategy fan page shows its daunting depth. If you have even a passing interest in the Cold War or in historical strategy titles, I strongly recommend picking up a copy. And if you don’t mind dealing with a neophyte player, let me know — I’m hungry for some competition online!

Images for Episode 10: The Diem Experiment (Part One)

Episode 10: The Diem Experiment (Part One)

Stream or download it for free on iTunesStitcher, or Podomatic.

For nine years at the height of the Cold War, America’s global crusade against communism rested on the shoulders of Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem. Hailed as a “miracle man” who brought the blessings of democracy and development to South Vietnam, Diem became a celebrity. But his miracles had a steep price. As his regime soaked up millions of dollars in American aid and military support, it ruthlessly suppressed its enemies, devastated villages, and failed to cope with a rising communist insurgency. As the Diem experiment began to absorb US prestige, money, and lives, Americans began to question whether their adventure in Southeast Asia was worth the cost…

Part one of this series explores Diem’s rise to power and the origins of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Diem tries to chart a “third way” between the rocks of communism and empire; French, Japanese, and Americans vie for influence; and Vietnamese factions battle for the future of their country as a hapless emperor watches.

Inward Empire music by Stephen Spencer.

Image result for ngo dinh diem


Christopher Goscha, Vietnam: A New History (New York: Basic Books, 2016)

Max Hastings, Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy (New York: Harper, 2018)

George Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (New York: McGraw Hill, 2014)

Seth Jacobs, Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam, 1950-1963 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006)

Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983)

Mark Lawrence, The Vietnam War: A Concise International History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2013)

Edward Miller, “Vision, Power, and Agency: The Ascent of Ngo Dinh Diem, 1945-54,” in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 35 (3), pp 433-458

Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (New York: Harper Collins, 1991)


Sound Education + meeting Carlin

Sometimes you get lucky.

Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend the Sound Education conference at Harvard. There was a ridiculous amount of talent concentrated in the dowdy halls and classrooms of the Divinity School. I got to meet a bunch of fellow Dark Myths podcasters and rub elbows with some big names in the … what should we call it? The industry? The biz?

The point about language is no joke. It was blindingly clear that the folks at the conference divided sharply between the small independent types — the ones who work day jobs and run their passion projects on the side — and those who come to their podcasts loaded with resources ($) from radio stations and universities. At one panel, I asked a question about strategies to balance deep research and a timely release schedule. It was easy, one of the panelists said — just get your interns to do the research for you.

That divide also showed itself in levels of preparation. Some of the big-name panels were disappointing in that little preparation or thought had gone into them. It reminded me of a lot of disappointing master classes I went to in music school, where big-name musicians (who were well-paid for their time) would play for five minutes and then ask the room if anyone had questions. On the flip side, I saw a GREAT talk by CJ Kilmer of the Dangerous History podcast (and a fellow Dark Myths guy) about voluntarism in education; he spoke to a room of four people.

So I count all this as good luck. I was lucky to meet these people, make these connections, learn a bit about what separates the big fish from the small fish.

The biggest piece of luck, though, came courtesy of Kristaps Andrejsons, host of the Eastern Border podcast. I hosted him for part of the weekend, showed him around Boston, introduced him to New England seafood (it turns out oysters and clam chowder are in line with the Baltic addiction to salty things from the ocean), and in return, he gave us both the chance to meet one of our creative idols.

We spoke with Dan Carlin for about fifteen minutes in the lobby of Harvard’s music building, just after Dan had given a keynote talk in the main hall upstairs. We recorded it, and you can listen to the whole thing by following the link at the end of this post. The setting wasn’t ideal. You’ll hear that in the weird audio levels, the boomy acoustics of the space, and the arrival of a noisy elevator at the end of the interview.

But do yourself a favor and listen to the whole thing. Dan certainly didn’t have to make time for us, nor did he have to give two nervous junior podcasters his full attention. But that was exactly what he did. Dan was incredibly warm, personable, and took us and our questions seriously. This moment was loaded with meaning for me. When my fledgling career in music foundered a few years ago and I was desperately looking for a new creative outlet, Dan’s work pointed the way to something new and exciting. Inward Empire’s DNA goes back to my listening to Dan’s massive multipart series on the end of the Roman Republic and my desire to adapt and build on the model that Dan has created so masterfully. It’s always a relief to find out that someone you admire — especially someone you admire creatively — is also good person.

So here it is, a product of a tremendous piece of good luck in a weekend full of them. All my gratitude to Kristaps for making this happen, and to Dan for his generosity and time.


Inward Empire 2.0

My goal with Inward Empire was to create a podcast that I’d want to listen to, to fill a void that I saw and, with a few exceptions still see, in the field of history podcasts. Three and a half years into this project, I’m still thinking about how I can fulfill that vision. As I approach episode 10, I’ve come up with a list of resolutions. Some of them recognize what’s worked so far, and reflect my pride and satisfaction in that. Most are aimed at improvement and reform. I’m making them public because I think improvement stems from practice, reflection, and assessment; they’re my attempt to reflect and assess how I’ve fared so far, and to invite listeners to do the same.

  1. Maintain my standards: deep research, thoughtful writing, extensive use of primary sources, and a commitment to understanding the past as it was seen and experienced by human beings at the time.
  2. Get back in touch with the passion that drove episodes 1-3. I was emotionally invested in the stories of the conflicts of early New England and Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War memory in ways that I haven’t quite been able to recapture with later episodes. Whatever the shortcomings of those early shows, while producing them I felt a level of raw emotion that needs to be the criterion for every topic I choose.
  3. Produce shorter episodes. For Inward Empire 1.0, if I had a story that would take six hours to tell, I would tell it in two 3-hour episodes; for Inward Empire 2.0, I would tell it in six 1-hour episodes. This means more frequent content, and probably better quality. It’s easier to write ten outstanding pages than it is to write 50.
  4. Introduce more variety. This means not only time period (I love the late 19th century but let’s be real, it’s time for a break) but also region, theme, ideology, race, gender, etc.
  5. Make use of new resources. This means audio clips from newsreels, films, interviews, and so on. It also means collaborating with other podcasters and historians from time to time.
  6. Continue to improve audio quality and production value.
  7. Improve my “sound” as a podcaster, working towards a signature, instantly recognizable delivery. This is a tricky one, and in some ways it’s the most important on the list. Broadly, I think I’m strong at informing and weak at entertaining. That stems from a combination of my writing, editing (both script and audio), the quality of my voice, and my delivery. The last thing I want to be is boring, but I worry that my show falls into that trap from time to time. I have no broad plan to address this, which I think is fine — my experiences with music suggest that practice and time will do the trick. But I do think producing shorter episodes will help in the short term. I can think of only two people who can hold my interest while talking about history for hours on end: Dan Carlin and Yale historian David Blight (whose class on the Civil War + Reconstruction, last I checked, is on iTunes).

I encourage listeners to weigh in. Is there something I’ve missed, or is there anything about this project that you’ve found especially engaging, frustrating, or otherwise worthy of feedback? Drop me a line, either here or by email at

Images for Episode 9: Soldiers of Capital (Part Two)