H.W. (Bill) Brands is a historian who has written more than 30 books including one of his most recent ones, The Last Campaign: Sherman, Geronimo, and the War For America. In this episode. Brands talks about his ongoing desire to find out “what makes humans tick,” how he got “inside Geronimo’s head,” partisan politics, and the future of the American dollar. (Recorded June 8, 2023.)
Robert Bryce 0:04
Hi, everyone, welcome to the power hungry Podcast. I’m Robert price on this podcast we talked about energy, politics, energy, power, innovation in politics. I’ve done this a few times, energy, power, innovation and politics. And today I’m pleased to welcome my friend, HW brands, Bill brands, he and I’ve been acquainted for some time. We’re going to talk a lot of politics, I think today, and I want to talk about a lot of things media money and partisan politics is what we talked about when we ran into each other the other day at Barton Springs bill. But I’ve warned you that guess on this before we get to any of that, and including your latest book, which I’ve been reading, guests on this podcast, introduce themselves, so if you don’t mind, please introduce yourself.
Bill Brands 0:46
Okay. I’m HW brands. The H is for Henry. W is for William people like Robert, call me, Bill. I am a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. I write about American history originally about American foreign policy, but I’ve expanded from there that covers all aspects of American history, politics, I’ve written some biographies. I’m on this lifelong quest to figure out what makes humans tick.
Robert Bryce 1:15
Okay, and well, I want to ask what makes humans tick then at the end, we’ll get to that. But yes, you’re a professor, a historian, professor at University of Texas at Austin. Your latest book is The last campaign Sherman Geronimo and the war for America. And I want to talk about that first. But just for a station break, you can find Dr. brand’s work at hW brands.substack.com. And you’re also the author of you’re being modest. In your introduction. You’ve written more than 30 books. Do you know the exact number Knack
Bill Brands 1:50
as it depends on how you count co authored books and edited books, but it’s yeah, in that ballpark?
Robert Bryce 1:58
three dozen or so. Okay, well, we’ll come back to that topic as well. But let’s talk about the last campaign because I’ve been reading it I won’t claim to have gotten all the way through it. But I’m fascinated by it. It’s terrifically written. It was I was I was reading it. I was thinking, well, this isn’t ancient history. It Geronimo died in Fort Sill, Oklahoma in 1909. That was two years after Oklahoma became a state. My grandmother grew up in wit at the time when Oklahoma still was not a state. Alas, the what is a I guess maybe a common question for books like this one or any books. What made you write this one you’ve written about Rosa, you’ve done biographies of Franklin Roosevelt, Benjamin Franklin, Ronald Reagan, numerous others. Why Sherman and Jeronimo
Bill Brands 2:46
I wanted to grapple with what I think is the fundamental question of American history. It’s a comparable question for every other country. But how did the current configuration of law and politics take shape? So for every square inch on Earth outside of Antarctica, the ground the ground, the land is claimed by some sovereign government? And the question is, how did that sovereign government get control of that land. And I’ve read enough of history, I’ve observed some history, to know that it almost always is a result of conflict, to put not too fine a point on it, somebody wins a war. Maybe they want to war a long time ago, one of the reasons you and I are speaking English, rather than Anglo Saxon is that William of Normandy, came across the English Channel and injected a bunch of French into Anglo Saxon. So you can explain a lot and the current context, the current political figuration, the world seems permanent, to those of us who are in the middle of it, when it’s our generation, they go, Okay, this is what it’s leading to. Now, if you step back and think, you know, nothing’s permanent, things will change. But in the case of the United States of America, the the United States has controlled the territory within the boundaries of the United States now for almost a quarter of a millennium. So are coming up on the 250th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence. So I wanted to know, how is it that this one group of people, we Americans came to control this territory, and I cast it in long historical terms, what I call the war for America. Now readers will have to go along with my mild conceit when I say the war for America lasted 10,000 years, give or take a few 1000 years. And what I mean is that from the time the first arrivals from Asia, this is a common thing. He maybe some came from Europe, but the common thinking was they arrived from Siberia and they came across the Bering Strait except it wasn’t a Bering Strait. It was dry land in those days and, and lately anthropologists and and archaeologists have been kind of revising that, but basically people came from Asia to America. and within a short time, they were competing for control of the best areas of resources. So one might think when the first arrivals come, there’s so much land, they’ll all just get along as good buddies. But not all. There’s always one river that’s best for fishing. There’s always one hunting ground that’s best for that. And we humans are a competitive and sometimes belligerent race. And we we fight. And so the way I propose this is that this war for America began 10,000 years ago, we don’t know exactly when we don’t know exactly who the combatants were. But at the other end, I know exactly when the war for America ended. And I know exactly who the protagonist, the antagonists were. They were Sherman and Geronimo, and the date was 1886. And that’s gonna sound oddly specific, but I’ll explain what I mean. So my point here is that this war had been going on for a long time, and the war is over, who will give the law to the territory that is going to commit that winds up becoming the United States of America. And there were hundreds of competing groups until it finally came down to these last two. The last two were the Union Army under William Sherman and Geronimo’s band of Apaches. And I say the last two because he was the last holdout when Geronimo surrendered further last time in 1886. That was it, there was no longer any organized opposition to the claim that the government of the United States of America controls all the land within the boundaries of the United States. And
Robert Bryce 6:33
so and let me stop you there. Because there was an interesting point you made in the book, which again, I thought it was terrific, very well, wonderfully written a highly recommended, but that US grant at the time, was getting ready to write off Arizona just oh, well, you know, forget about it. It’s not worth it. Let them have patches, have that godforsaken country, we don’t care. Right.
Bill Brands 6:54
Yeah. So in fact, this war ended, as nearly all wars end with a peace a settlement. It’s not a complete victory for one side over the other. There are exceptions to this Germany at the end of World War Two had the terms dictated to it. Carthage was destroyed by Rome at the end of the Second Punic War. But most of the time, there’s some sort of settlement and the settlement that the Indian tribes, Indian nations came to the US government, it’s okay, we will keep part of our land. And so we call them reservations. It’s a much smaller portion of land, then many of them had claimed before, but it’s not as though they go out of existence. It’s not as though they disappear, they have to evacuate, we come to this settlement. And so the underwriting question behind all of this, and I tend to look at questions that people have to answer individuals have to answer during any chapter of history. And the question that had to be answered in this chapter of history. And this is the question that every Indian leader, every leader of a Native American tribe nation had to answer is, how long can we continue to resist? Because it was clear that there was this large and growing population that was increasingly impinging on the territory that had traditionally been claimed by these Indian tribes. And the Indians from the very beginning, had to make a choice. Do we cooperate? Do we resist? And we would put a combination of these two we do. And in fact, for hundreds of years, the combination of the cooperation sometimes resist sometimes was the answer. Ultimately, ultimately, though, they have to acknowledge they have to decide can we continue to resist the authority of the government of the United States? And finally, when Geronimo for the last time says, Okay, I give up, then he’s the last one who makes that decision, but every leader of the various tribes, the Lakota leaders, you know, Crazy Horse sitting ball, Chief Joseph, Captain Jack,
Robert Bryce 9:08
five, sequester all I’ve said, finally say,
Bill Brands 9:11
Okay, we cannot continue to live the old ways. Nobody’s asking them to sort of give up their freedom precisely. They’re not going to jail. I mean, a few like Geronimo become prisoners of war, but most of them say, Okay, you’re gonna go live over there. And you can and this is one of the critical things, and you can still have your own form of government. You said, we’re gonna talk about politics, this is politics. Sure, who’s gonna make the laws for the Indian peoples and the standing offer, and sometimes it was explicit. Other times it was implicit for any of the Indian peoples. If you want to accept the authority of the state in which you live, then fine, just, you know, just you can stay in Georgia, for example. So when the Cherokees were compelled to leave Georgia they they weren’t. They didn’t have to leave as chair turkeys, they had to leave as an organized group who refuse to be bound by the laws of the state of Georgia. The deal was if you want to stay in Georgia, and live as a citizen of Georgia, just like all the other people in Georgia, you can stay and keep your land. But if you want to have this separate government under separate laws, now that can’t happen in Georgia anymore. One of the characters in my book is a guy named Eli Parker, who was a Seneca Indian whose parents had essentially assimilated, they said, okay, they, the assimilation often accompany conversion to Christian, a Christian denomination. So they had, they had converted, and they raised their kid Eli, as just an ordinary citizen of New York. And he went off and he had an engineering career. And in fact, he became the right hand man of Ulysses Grant. During the Civil War. It was Eli Parker, who actually wrote the terms of property lease surrender agreement. Washington, you know, I mean, so many grants is okay, this is what they’re gonna be in. Parker wrote them down. And and then, after the war, and after grant became president, Eli Parker became head of the the Bureau of Indian Affairs, right. And, you know, he was as a full blooded, Seneca Indian. Well,
Robert Bryce 11:14
as you’re saying this and you know, I’m from Tulsa. So I’m, you know, born and raised in Oklahoma, and some of you are saying some of these things are settled. But a lot of these issues around Indian, or American, Indian American, Native American Rights are still being litigated, I mean, particularly in Oklahoma. But one of the things that stood out to me too, in will about the fights that you catalog in the book was the brutality and understanding how Geronimo became his, he seized his whole life over the murder of his wife and children, at the hands of the Mexicans so that his real sworn enemy was not the United States, it was the Mexicans and that there were these brutal raids back and forth and were incredibly bloody, and that he kept he was continually trying to avenge the murder of his of his family and then leading smaller and smaller groups of Apaches to try and, and inflict pain on the Mexicans until, you know, and he remember you wrote that he would go back on several occasions, and he would be the only one returning and the others were dead. And he could say, he said, I knew it was a defeat. So I can only remain silent, right that he was even kind of an outcast in some ways among the Apaches, but then led leads a victorious battle and then becomes the the war chief for the Apaches. And yeah, just
Bill Brands 12:34
go ahead and run him on the case of drowning in the Apaches is striking reminder that, for very many people, the boundaries that are drawn on maps have no real significance. Right. So Geronimo was born in New Spain, and Spain control it. And then Mexico got independence from Spain.
Robert Bryce 12:55
So it was born in 1820 9am. I remembering correctly it was 21 is when Mexico 21. And, and Sherman was born in 1829. if I’m remembering correctly, yeah, okay, so what are they were born about nine years apart.
Bill Brands 13:08
So drawing them out yet. So when John was born in Mexico has claimed Arizona, and then But then when he’s in his mid 20s, the United States claims control of Arizona. But for Geronimo, that really didn’t make any difference. It was a matter of these are not your acabo Apaches. And so therefore, there’s somebody else. By the way, one of the things that I point out again, and again, the story is that I remember when I first sort of would read histories of the Indian Wars, it always struck me as kind of odd that there were invariably at any get in any battle in which there are US troops against Indians. There are also Indians who are fighting with the US troops against the other India’s say, we don’t know what’s going on here. And you know, aren’t the Indians all, you know, should they all be in the same side? Well, they certainly didn’t think so. And, in fact, it’s kind of a reminder that this war for America as I described, and this is the point that tried to make an introduction, my book, it didn’t begin when the Europeans arrived, the war had been going on forever and ever. Right and, and it’s, it’s worth the reminders or the context of all of this, when the Cherokees wanted to stay in Georgia. Now, for understandable reasons, the Cherokees cast themselves as always having been here, they hadn’t always been there. In fact, the Cherokees got to Georgia, they migrated from the Great Lakes region, and they fought their way into Georgia. They arrived about the same time that the English landed in Jamestown. So it’s not as though they had any longer term claim on the land than the English did. And when Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull in the cloud Lakota has claimed that the Black Hills, which was what ultimately gave rise, the Battle of Little Bighorn, the control of Black Hills, that it had been the Lakotas forever Never know what happened. There’s a particular date in 1776 when the Lakota has defeated the crows, who had claimed the Black Hills before that and drove them out. And which explains why when Custer wrote into battle, his scouts were Crow Indians, and they felt that their number one enemy was not the blue jackets, not the US Army, but their traditional longtime enemy, the Lakotas, and it also explains why, and it can happen even within a single tribe, and within abandoned tribes. So when Geronimo surrendered, he was not captured by US troops. He was captured by their Apache Scout’s Apache guides, they hired the Apaches to go after Toronto. And the reason for this was by the time Toronto finally got around to surrendering, most of the Apaches thought he was a pain in the neck. Now, later generations would say, you know, this great patriot and all this, and if you want to paint history with a one single broad brush, okay, but the fact is, that by that time, nearly all the other Apaches had realized we cannot continue this resistance, we have to come to terms with these Americans, but Geronimo, he would say, Okay, I’m coming out of the reservation than off he would go. And in fact, he had a certain band of followers within the tribe, who felt obliged to go out with him. And one of them is, basically is my witness in Geronimo’s camp. His name is Jason Betson is and he was a much younger cousin of Geronimo. And so when Geronimo left the reservation, this guy’s mother Batson, as his mother felt obliged to go along, because she had been a follower. She didn’t want to go, he didn’t want to go, they realize, oh, man, we’ve done this before we go on these crazy marches across mountains and deserts and everything else we’re gonna wind if we don’t starve, we’re gonna just have to come back eventually, anyway, but they kind of did it out of loyalty to Toronto himself. And when he was finally captured, it was because other Apache said, We got to stop this business. So we will side with the white folks and the the army to bring him in. Right? It’s significant, that
Robert Bryce 17:17
one of those division, those divisions are so important, because I mean, you make those points that he had to he had to go to the different bands of Apaches to appeal to them to go with him, for instance, on his his quest in New Mexico, but the other thing that shines through, I mentioned the brutality, right that, you know, this raid that happened outside of Fort grant, where it was just the slaughter of the Apache women and children of you know, something like 200 of them, right. And this was just the way it was done. And that today that would be considered just so inanimate, but that is not that long ago. And I’ll just make one quick, one quick comment, which I have a distant, very distant connection to this Geronimo story. In 1994, I published a piece of the Christian Science Monitor, about the Mescalero Apaches wanting to put nuclear waste on their reservation in New Mexico and I interviewed Joseph Geronimo. Oh was Jeronimos great grandson. And I looked up the piece just today. And at that time was Windell. Cina was the chairman of the tribe and Fred pacer was the vice chair and they were trying to negotiate a deal on the nuclear energy nuclear sector in the US was all for it. Right? Oh, looks let’s put this on this Indian land interim repository. I looked up the quote, that I interviewed Joseph drum, I interviewed him face to face he was working as a, as a counselor on a drug and alcohol rehab facility. He he was opposed Joseph Geronimo was he said, they tried swords, and then guns, and then the Bible. Now it’s nuclear waste. He said, My granddad didn’t spend 23 years in jail for nothing. Anyway, that’s Joseph Geronimo from now almost 30 years ago, which is, you know, shows how long I’ve been doing this job. But But how did you how did you get a last question about the the last campaign which I again, I recommend, how did you do the reporting? I mean, you just had some wonderful details particularly about Geronimo and his, his writing about his family and his writing about why he kept going to war and his motivation. And it was really just those observations are really quite remarkable. How did you do all that reporting? Because it’s very detailed.
Bill Brands 19:22
Yeah. I wanted to tell this story that I described an outline the end of the war for America, which is, I call it sort of the end of the Indian wars in America from the end of the Civil War. 1865 to 1886, was basically two decades. I wanted to tell it to the extent that I could, through the eyes and words of the people who participated, right, I was drawn to history by eyewitness accounts. I’m sort of as I’m a historian, and maybe because I’m in store I’m naturally a little bit skeptical of the words of historians, right, because I know I write that sentence and I could have written this ends differently. So I want to get to the actual participants, the eyewitnesses, the people who were there, right? And that’s what drew me into the stage history, to read all diaries to read memoirs to read letters and all this stuff. And so I wanted to find a couple of individuals who had distinctive voices this so I’m speaking, I’m thinking in literary terms here, how can I tell the story I need voices to carry the story forward. I knew the story of Sherman Sherman has kind of all over that middle period of American history. And I know that he’s a wonderful narrator of what he does, he writes great letters. He wrote memoirs, and All right, so Sherman is a good one. Also, one of the things I really liked about Sherman is he’s a complicated individual. He was arguably the most successful I’ll call him warrior. in American history. During this period, Grant had a much shorter life. But But Sherman went on, and he was the top commander in the US Army for another 20 years, nearly right. But he was very ambivalent about the whole idea of war. You mentioned early in our talk about how Grant was it was actually Sherman, who wanted to give up Arizona, and said, you know, this isn’t worth it. There’s not enough in Arizona, to go through all of this. And so let’s give it back. And Sherman was exceedingly skeptical of the motives of the whites on the frontier, who always said, We need help, you know, we need people to come defend us. They understood that they wanted people to come defend them, so they could sell their crops and other provisions to the army. They get used to it during the Civil War. And they want to keep the business going to the point where they would provoke the Indians to battle and then claim we’ve been attacked, come defend us. And they knew they would get a sympathetic ear in Congress. So grant understood all of it. I’m assuming Sherman understood this. And although he was America’s most successful war, he’s perhaps most famous for saying war is hell. And so he was a good one on the on the one side because I needed somebody to hang the story on opposite sides. Geronimo John, were very conveniently for me had two characteristics. One, he was the last holdout. So when drama surrenders, I can say my story is over. So he’s an obvious one. But also, he’s the very, very rare example of an Indian leader, who wrote a memoir. Sitting Bull didn’t write a memoir, Chief Joseph didn’t write a memoir. graziers didn’t write a memoir. Quanah Parker didn’t write a memoir. He did. Now, technically, he dictated his memoir of it’s so read lots of people. So so I can actually get inside his head. And so
Robert Bryce 22:30
forgive me on the just the research part of this was this published is it wasn’t easy to find out. I looked for Toronto. So
Bill Brands 22:38
it was published in I think, 1911, or there abouts and had
Robert Bryce 22:41
died and he died in 1909. Right, yeah, it’s still it’s still a prisoner at Fort Sill.
Bill Brands 22:45
Yeah. And he, he wrote it, basically to justify his life because he was trying to persuade Theodore Roosevelt, president united states at the time to let him go back to Arizona. Right. In conjunction with this, he converted to Christianity, not just any branch of Christianity, but the Dutch Reformed Church. And that was, once you know, it, the sect that Theodore Roosevelt was a member of didn’t work. Roosevelt wasn’t persuaded. But it allows me to get inside Geronimo’s head, in a way I couldn’t. So very often history, for understandable reasons is written sort of from the outside, because it’s hard to get inside the heads of people this but I try to focus on individuals whose heads I can get in the side up. And it’s from Geronimo’s own words from his memoir, that we know that the shock of seeing his dead wife and mother and children there who were basically slaughtered by the Mexicans during a moment of truce between the Apaches, and the Mexicans, caused Geronimo to have this to go on this lifelong vendetta against the Mexicans. And I, as I suggested earlier, he hardly distinguished between the Mexicans and Americans, because these were all people who are not Apaches, who are compressing in on the Apache territory, right.
Robert Bryce 24:03
And they were all Yeah, the outsiders that I
Bill Brands 24:08
should add. The drama was really good though, although he didn’t acknowledge the legitimacy of the border between the United States and Mexico, he was perfectly willing to use it. So he was being chased by American soldiers, he would go across the border into Mexico and the American soldier would have to stop. And when the Mexican soldiers on his trail had to go back into the United States, and the Mexican soldiers have to stop, eventually, the theater commanders on both sides and Mexicans in the US, they got together. Okay, we’re gonna let you come across in hot pursuit. Otherwise, you’re never gonna catch this guy. Right?
Robert Bryce 24:35
Well, and it reminds me too. I mean, this is the chase that happens what 40 years later, Blackjack Pershing trying to find Pancho via or 30 years later, right where the punitive expedition by border territory
Bill Brands 24:48
in northern Mexico, New Mexico, southern Texas. It’s rugged country. Yeah, there’s a lot of it
Robert Bryce 24:56
you can hide. Well, and that was the other part that to me that shone through was I mean, just the toughness, I mean, just I mean, the hardship that the Apaches went through. I mean, you talk about the one expedition they went into Mexico with I think, you know, I forgot how many it was roughly 100, I think Apaches, but they were, they were covering 40 to 45 miles a day, I mean, marching, and just their ability to move and move at great speed. And for over long distances with very little in the way of supplies or any kind of just the incredible endurance that they
Bill Brands 25:28
have. And this is why Geronimo could could have stayed out essentially, as long as he wanted, because he had the ability to move through the land, he didn’t need a horse. And eventually he was getting a bit old. But But still, they the, the Apaches almost never stood and fought a pitch battle. So they would stage raids, but if they were outnumbered, then they would split up. And they all had an agreed upon meeting spot where 72 hours later and 100 miles away, they would meet. So that all goes in different directions. So the people who were chasing him had no idea who to chase, and they.
Robert Bryce 26:05
And they ran on foot, many didn’t. They
Bill Brands 26:07
didn’t even on horseback for soldiers couldn’t keep up with the Apaches on foot. Yeah.
Robert Bryce 26:12
So let’s shift now because this is I wanted to talk about the last campaign because it’s your most recent book came out in November of 2022. But we ran into each other at Barton Springs the other day, I said, I wanted to talk about media money and partisan politics. And we start with the last one first, because we have a very divided country, right, and we have one that arguably has become more divided, fuelled by social media that enforces the divides that there’s some part of reinforcement in that in that it what we’re seeing, right that you’re on one side or the other. And pox on the other side house, the houses of the other side. But when we chatted about it, you said well, maybe we’re just perceiving this that in fact, we’ve all that there’s always been divisions in America, they’ve always been nasty. And that only we’re only because there’s more media, we sense it as more division. I know, You’ve written about this a lot. And you know, and use you, you’re on substack now as well. So you look at media like I do. Is America more divided now? Or in a historical context that we as are we more divided now than we were say, you know, after the Civil War, or in the in the 1920s? Or, you know, at any other time? Is the division more greater today? Or is it Are we just perceiving it as greater?
Bill Brands 27:30
It’s hard to measure whether we’re more divided less divided on a single axis, right? So we’re more divided in some ways less divided in other ways. I will point out since you talked about media money in politics, one of the things that contributes to this sense that we are divided is the fact that makes a great story for people like you and me talking about on a podcast, or people on new shows. So it’s, you know, you can’t tell an interesting story, if everybody agrees, you gotta have a fight. You know, every movie, every novel has a conflict. And so every news story has to have a conflict. It’s why reporting on presidential races, even when the presidential race is a year and a half away two years away. You know, it’s still we can’t resist, you know, let’s go ahead and do it. Because this is personal. When is that person going? When I find when I have just kind of observed the media, what happens on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News is not that much different than what happens on ESPN. There is an ESPN, ESPN carries some actual events, right to broadcast some events, but mostly it’s talk. It’s talk about events that haven’t happened, events that have happened, but it’s just opinion, opinion, opinion. Right? And
Robert Bryce 28:48
I believe, can you believe what it LeBron said
Bill Brands 28:51
are exactly and there’s an
Robert Bryce 28:54
incredible sell out of the PGA to the Saudis. Right, which is the latest.
Bill Brands 28:58
You know, it’s it’s striking that Donald Trump made millions and millions of dollars for MSNBC, it was the best time for MSNBC. So there is the drama of it, the the ability of one side of the other to be appalled at what the other is up to, so that contributes to this. But I will point out there’s a structural reason for partisan divisions. These go back to the beginning of American politics, the first parties in the United States coalesced around the issue of whether the constitution that was written in Philadelphia in 1787, should be ratified or not, and those who said it ought to be ratified, called themselves Federalist. They took the name from the idea that they were putting together this federal union, but also from this series of opinion pieces called the Federalist that were written by advocates of the new federal government, Alexander Hamilton, John J. And James Madison. And so they were called the Federalists, their opponents, and initially were called anti Federalist. And during the debate over the Constitution, that’s what they were called Federalists and anti Federalists and nobody was thinking of them as permanent organizations, they were just these coalition’s, you know, just like in Austin or anywhere else, we’re for this particular amendment to the state constitution, or we’re against whatever it might be, and you take your allies where you can find them. Now, it so happened that after the Constitution was ratified, that some of the same groups they they stuck together, and when you have a democratic political system, especially one like ours, that doesn’t have provision for proportional representation, there is this strong advantage to making as large a coalition as you can, because in our system, on a vote for a bill, it’s a yes or no, if you get 51%, you win, if you get 49%, you lose. So you put together the largest coalition’s you can, it tends to be a binary kind of thing. In certain parliamentary systems, there’s proportional representation. So if the Green Party in Germany gets 10%, of the national vote, they get 10%, in the German legislature, and likewise elsewhere. And so you can have in systems like that have multiple parties. And the result of this is there isn’t it’s just one side banging against the other side, all the time, their way, the way it is, in majoritarian systems like ours, so part of it is structural. But once you’ve got that structure in there, then you build in the incentives to make the each of the opposing groups as large as possible. And in the United States, it is typically been the one party that has property and wealth the rich folks. And I’m going to say sort of against the other folks. Now this changes over time, and what constitutes wealth, and are we talking about landed wealth or not. But there is this sense, and it’s, again, it’s understandable in a democracy, that folks who aren’t wealthy are tempted to try to get the wealth of the people who are wealthy by taxes or whatever means. So we’ve got this incentive, where they’re basically going to be only two teams that’s built into the Constitution and the Constitution to the states. And then what causes the teams to form? What issues do they form over? Well, that’s subject to negotiation, they change over time.
Robert Bryce 32:30
Well, if I can interrupt good, because this is the focus of your next book, I think you said that this, the title of that is what
Bill Brands 32:35
the title its founding partisans, not founding fathers, but founding partisans. And is that subtitle. Yeah, so Hamilton, Madison, Adams, Jefferson, and the brawling birth of American politics.
Robert Bryce 32:50
Wow, that’s, that’s a mouthful for a subtitle.
Bill Brands 32:55
You and I both benefit in this, when you write nonfiction, you basically get to wax at a title. If you write a novel, you just get a title. That’s it. Right. But with nonfiction, we get a title and then a subtitle. So the title can be as an elusive or vague or intriguing as you want, then as a subtitle actually spells out what it’s going to be. And maybe I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, if you read much in the way of 19th century works, but they will have subtitles that go on for paragraphs.
Robert Bryce 33:24
Well, let me ask you about that. Because actually, that’s one of the things that I wrote down here. And I want to talk about you what you do as a writer, your process. But do you start with a book? You know, it’s one of the things i i, a lot of people come to me and talk about writing books. And I say, well, one of the things you need to do is start thinking about the title, you need to know what the title is, do you know what the title is, before you start on a given book, now you’ve written 30 of them. So you must have some experience in this do you? You start with it. Because I when I write an article, I start with the headline, I don’t always start with the headline, I sometimes will change it. But I want to have a headline, because that provides some framework for me, do you start that way with the book?
Bill Brands 34:00
I did in this case, and I tried to on the partisan on the founding? Yeah. And I tried to do this. Because, as you know, and you know, when I’ve worked with my editor, and the folks at Doubleday, part of Penguin Random House now for 25 years. And basically, I have to persuade them, that this is a project that they can get behind. Because if I don’t,
Robert Bryce 34:27
you have to you have to sell my book, you have to sell the editors first.
Bill Brands 34:32
Precisely, precisely. And so if I can come up with a title, a catchy title, then okay, then that, that gets me halfway there. And founding partisans. I thought, yeah, okay. Because in the world of history, there are sort of, it’s kind of like the skyline of New York, where there are a bunch of skyscrapers and Wall Street, and then they go down a little bit and then a bunch of skyscrapers in Midtown are like in Houston, you know where their various parts of the city that have these things, right? But the world of history books is the same way. So there’s lots of interest in the Revolutionary War, then it kind of goes down. There’s a big interest in the Civil War. And then, you know, World War Two and stuff like that. So there’s existing interest in the Revolutionary War, the founding, so anything founding, well, that’s gonna resonate, but then editors in particular, and the marketers, they like, Well, okay, so how is this going to attract an audience today, there are dozens, there you go. So, put those together. So in fact, it was fairly easy sell to win
Robert Bryce 35:35
and win is when does founding partisans come out?
Bill Brands 35:39
First week in November. So
Robert Bryce 35:41
this will be almost exactly a year after the publication of the last campaign, then
Bill Brands 35:47
yes, and just in time for the holiday gift buying.
Robert Bryce 35:54
Bill Brands 35:55
the intelligence of the giver and of the recipient, now just got the right price point, they wrapped really well, you can mail them perfect. And here we go.
Robert Bryce 36:05
See the marketing never stops you the writing is only part of it, you got to sell it right. So. So we’re, well then I want to come back to the issue of money because you also wrote a book, the money, men, capitalism, democracy and the 100 years war over the American dollar. So I want to talk about inflation in just a minute. But since we’re talking about writing, and you are a prolific writer, I will, you know, I wear my arm out patting myself on the back for having written six books, you’ve written five acts what I’ve written, not that I’m bitter or jealous, but you are incredibly productive. And I’m saying that without any fear of contradiction. How do you do it? I mean, I know I see you walking, and I see you listen to I’m assuming you listen to books while you’re walking. And so are you always writing if you’re awake?
Bill Brands 36:54
Not exactly, no, no, by no means. But I will say this, that I feel very fortunate in this thing that some people will pay me to do, my publisher and people who buy my books is a thing of all things I pretty much like best to do. I really like to write. And like you, I get questions from people who want to be writers. And you know, so how do you do it? And sometimes I ask them, so, you know, when you write, how much do you write? And if they start by saying, Well, I have a hard time, you know, carving out time and I have to do this. I sometimes I’m well, if I’m being quite candid with them, I say, forget it. It’s never going to work for you. Because I always
Robert Bryce 37:42
tell them, I always tell them, Don’t do it. You think you’re gonna write a book, I just don’t do it. If there’s no misery, like this process is oh, I’m okay. Um, it’s, it’s incredibly hard.
Bill Brands 37:50
I’m gonna give you a specific example. I was visiting the University of Virginia to give a talk in Virginia. And I went to lunch with some graduate students in including one young man who was just completing his dissertation. And in fact, he he said he had just finished it. And he was going to turn it into his committee and get his degree soon. And he said, he said, Boy, I’m glad that’s over and was killing me. I didn’t think I’d ever finish. And so I said, scuze, me, we just met five minutes ago. So this might be very presumptuous of me to offer this advice, but I’ve don’t take it as vice is taken as an observation. You are about to embark on a career because he was going to look for a job at a university, you’re going to start on a career where you’re going to be expected to write why are you doing this? Because you’ve just told me, you hate doing it. You don’t like it look like a bright young man, you could probably succeed in lots of fields don’t do this. And I’m sure you’ve had this experience. There are a lot more people out there who want more people who want to be a published author, then want to sit down and write every day, you become that published author, there’s the idea of having written that’s more attractive than actually the writing
Robert Bryce 39:04
better to better better to have
Bill Brands 39:08
if you’re looking for excuses not to write they are always there. So I need to do this. I’ll have more time on the weekend. The kids have to be picked up from school this that the other thing in my case, that’s never been an issue because I just okay, I got 15 minutes. Okay, I can think about it. But if people want advice I say the first thing to do is plan to write every day. Yeah, even if you can only write a paragraph you know, even get all the right two cents, even if you can only start thinking about writing because then it will be in the back of your head. You won’t spend the first two hours of your writer set writing session trying to remember where you were. No, no, just write. Don’t be afraid of the page. Just put stuff down. And if you if you’re having a hard time putting stuff down, then just turn on your the recorder button on your phone and start talking. Nobody has speaking block people sometimes have writer’s block Oh, that’s an interesting point. Yeah. And I will say that, for me, it’s easier because I write nonfiction. I don’t have to think this stuff up. I don’t have to say. So what should my protagonists do today? They already did it. Well,
Robert Bryce 40:13
then we’re well suited for this. So let me let me ask you that because, well, that’s interesting what you said you were a reporter. That’s how I, I don’t think of myself. What do I think of my job as well? I’m a reporter, right? Even in the podcast, I’m interviewing you. I’m interviewing people, because I want to hear what they have to say. Right? What do we tell it? Let me talk to you and let other people listen in. Right? That’s how I view the podcasts that are in terms of what how you’re finding documents like the founding partisans? Are this book or the money men? Are you you’re finding original sources? You are? Do you usually work from Austin? Do you request library stuff from other libraries? do you how do you? How do you? Is the research just continually ongoing? And are? How many? Well, I’m asking a lot of questions. Is the research continually ongoing? And are you writing more than one book at once?
Bill Brands 40:56
I’m only composing one book at a time. Okay. Now, once the book is composed, once it’s gone off into production, then there will be a period of six months where I won’t see it, I won’t have anything to do with it by then I want to be on to my next project. So so there are various stages, as you know, of writing a book, there’s you got to conceive the idea, right? That’s what I’m often thinking about when I’m walking to and from Barton Springs. And okay, you know, what’s my next book? And what is the
Robert Bryce 41:22
question? What’s the question you want to answer? Right? Because that will, because that’s how you framed the Geronimo book was this right question? And
Bill Brands 41:29
in fact, my last several books are they fall in that category? So I wrote a book about John Brown and Abraham Lincoln. And their the framing question was, what does an honest man do when he is faced with an apparent evil? What do you do in the face of evil? Do you simply not engage with the evil? Do you call it out? In the case of John Brown, and Abraham Lincoln was okay, they both agree that slavery was evil, it was wrong. But what do you do about that? Abraham Lincoln said, we work through the political system, John Brown says, we take up the rifle, and we wage war against it. So there’s that question, everybody in all of our lives, we encounter things that are wrong. And we decide what do we do? Do we just vote against it? Do we take up arms against it? Do what do we do? So so? So
Robert Bryce 42:19
let me interrupt because this is under the question that you put at the beginning of our conversation. And it’s the one that to me as a as someone who writes for a living. And as I look at what you do, is that what drives you then? Because that’s one of the other questions I wrote down? Is that your that question is that your work ethic and your prodigious output is that you’re driven by trying to answer that question of what makes humans think I’m sorry? What makes humans tick? Yes. Is that is that that’s, that’s why you work so hard, because you’re still not unresolved questions. That’s the question you’re trying to resolve for yourself. I mean, it’s a philosophical
Bill Brands 42:56
question. It’s kind of the I’ll call it the meaning of life, but it’s a slice of the meaning of life. And so when you
Robert Bryce 43:03
say what makes them tick, what motivates them? We, when you say maker is white,
Bill Brands 43:07
and sometimes it’s what motivates them, what causes them to perceive themselves in this way, rather than that? I have I teach a course at UT. To graduate students. These are apprentice writers, and half the class consists of nonfiction writers, historians, journalists, the other half are writers of fiction. And they are novelist, playwrights, screenwriters. And they come together. And we talk about what is it we’re trying to do? And we’re trying to tell stories, we’re trying to answer some sort of questions about this, that and the other thing, and it has occurred to me that what I’m really trying to do, and all of this is to figure out what it means to be human. And, and mean, it’s partly what it means to be human now, but I think there’s probably some relatively permanent at least enduring aspects of human nature. So when I write about people in the 1790s, these people are mostly understandable and certainly recognizable to us. We live with the government and institutions they created. I’m not saying that somebody in the 2020s is going to react in exactly the same way that somebody in the 1790s reacted, for example, one of my protagonists and founding partisans, Alexander Hamilton, gets himself killed in a political duel. Right now, we have better politics today, but nobody shot somebody else, at least not in a duel. There were able weapons who stormed the US Capitol, and maybe it would have come to that, but it hasn’t yet. So, but I’m written and so this is what the students in this class of fiction writers, nonfiction writers, they sort of come up with. What we’re all trying to do is figure out what it means to be human. And the writers of fiction. They basically get to create the scenarios they get to create the case. characters but haven’t created them their works of fiction succeed, if they are understandable to other people reading Yeah, that’s the way somebody would have reacted. So there is an implication that this is the way human nature works. And if, if your character if your protagonist reacts in a way that just doesn’t resonate with other people, let’s say, no, then it’s not working. In the case of those of us who write history, those who aim for nonfiction, we don’t create the circumstances, we don’t create the characters, but we do report on the circumstances and the characters, we get to choose our characters among the various people.
Robert Bryce 45:37
And we, in the nonfiction and the fiction, though, that that has to ring true, right that it has that. And that’s what one fiction writer said to me a long time ago is a way to tell history without having you know, but it has to ring true to the history, right? You have to understand the history to write the fictional character in history, otherwise, it doesn’t work. Yes,
Bill Brands 45:56
although, I mean, having done this, I’m perfectly aware that those of us who write history, it’s not as though there’s this one version of history out there. And everybody’s gonna write the same version, right. And in fact, I remember I was in San Francisco, and I was about to give a talk on a book I wrote on the California gold rush. And I was that was on about the 10th floor of a building in downtown San Francisco, where the, the session was gonna be held. It was the Mechanics Institute, wonderful place in San Francisco. And I was looking out the window, I realized that looking out the window, that I didn’t see anything from my field of vision, and there’s almost nothing in San Francisco that antedates. Well, that exists from the time of the California gold rush, right? It was nearly all destroyed in the earthquake and fire in 1906. And so I thought, okay, and then I thought, there are probably at this particular moment, and this was around 2005, or six, there are probably less than a dozen people who have done really serious work on the California gold rush. And so if I could get those dozen or two dozen people in a room, and he said, You know what, let’s all get together, let’s change the history. Let’s just say it went this way, rather than that way. And if we all agreed, then, to a certain extent, we could change the history. Now we don’t. But there’s, the farther away we get from the events, the less distinction there is between nonfiction and fiction. So for example,
Robert Bryce 47:37
let me stop you because Well, that’s an interesting thing that somehow the further away it is, the harder it is to tell the truth bit or tell the difference between reality and something that’s made up. And so everybody
Bill Brands 47:48
knows what Caesar’s dying words were at TU brute A? No, he didn’t say that Shakespeare said that. So people know, Julius Caesar from Shakespeare, and he made it up. He based his play on a real character. But for 2000 years from Julius Caesar, does it really make a difference? If he said those are his dying words or not? We’re not going to vote differently tomorrow or in the next election? Oh, wait a minute. Shakespeare got it wrong. Now.
Robert Bryce 48:23
Well, that reminds me to say when when Facebook, what is the famous line was at Greeley that when interface between reporting the truth and reporting the legend report, the legend was in that as we’re speaking as a Hollywood filmmaker,
Bill Brands 48:33
and I can’t remember which one it was. Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Robert Bryce 48:37
Well, so. Yeah. Go ahead. Say it again. Who?
Bill Brands 48:42
Oh, especially if you have to shoot now. I can’t remember what the the way you phrase it was, but you know, if you print the myth or the reality, yeah, right. About the reality, you go with the myth. There you go. And but it’s interesting that you cite the the person who has a novelist who says it has to ring true. Now, this is. So as I said, I got these writers of fiction together and these nonfiction writers together. But I do point out that in the case of the nonfiction writers, it doesn’t have to ring true, because it can be true. So I give an example from my own right, it
Robert Bryce 49:24
can be true without you necessarily, but you have to give an example suspend belief to make me convince you that it actually happened. So
Bill Brands 49:31
in the early 1990s, I began my academic career writing about American foreign policy. And the early 1990s, I was writing a book on US relations with the Philippines. And it was the book was called bound to Empire. Because the Philippines is the conspicuous example of an American colony, an overseas colony, and the United States has prided itself on being anti imperialist anti colonial. So how did that work? Well, I got to the end of the book, but I had Wait, before I could write the very end of the book because the United States government and the Philippine government were in there once every decade negotiation over whether the American lease on a military and a naval base at Clark field and Subic Bay would be renewed. And they got they went through this song and dance every 10 years. And the Philippines would say, No, we’re not going to renew the lease trying to drive up the price and the Americans and now we’re going to walk away really don’t want to try to drive down the price. But eventually we had come to terms in the deal would be done. And so I wasn’t going to finish my book until they actually cut the deal. And then at least my book would be good for 10 years. And then I’d have to revise at that point. But just before they get come to a conclusion of the negotiations, I don’t know if you remember what happened. But a volcano in the Philippines erupted Mount Pinatubo, and it buried Clark field and Subic Bay under two feet of volcanic ash. And so the Pentagon says, it’s gonna be too expensive to dig that out. We’re out of here. Right? So I thought about that said, Okay, suppose I come to the climax of a novel. And and a volcano conveniently erupts. The editor would just laugh me out of the room say you can’t do that. And the reviewer was out. Oh, my God, this is hard. You can’t No Forget it. But my apology my rationalization was it actually happened. And so if you look at the lives of certain people, Sam Houston, he had a life. If you made this up, nobody would believe it. So I can always fall back as this is what I tell my students. That’s what footnotes are for. You don’t have to you don’t have to persuade people that it actually happened. It did there it is, right. So but and, and if I want to be when I’m feeling uncharitable, which I’m not I’m not an uncharitable guy, but when I’m feeling Why
Robert Bryce 51:48
am I’m uncharitable? When
Bill Brands 51:51
I’m feeling directorial, regarding the world of nonfiction, I say that fictional lists, everybody writes fiction, no, those nonfiction lists those of us who write the real deal, we expand our understanding of human nature, the fictionalist contract our understanding of human nature, and that’s gonna sound provocative. It’s supposed to be provocative. But here’s what I mean. That for a work of fiction to succeed, it has to ring true. But what does that mean? It simply it means it confirms the prejudices of the people who are reading it. And if you if you try to persuade somebody that no you that this sounds unlikely to you. You can’t do that it doesn’t work as well.
Robert Bryce 52:36
You can’t you can’t have a volcano erupting there.
Bill Brands 52:39
Besides, volcanoes really do erupt in let
Robert Bryce 52:43
me let me ask you this. Since since we’re talking about who, you know, for whom, you know, the audience. I’ve said this many times. I think about my late mother, right. My mom was a was a general reader, right? And I write more for Well, like you, I’m on substack. So I have an idea of who my audience is. And generally that a lot of them are in the energy and power sectors are related to it. But I want it to be for a general audience. So when I write I think about my Mom, do you have someone in a mom in mind when you write that you think, yeah,
Bill Brands 53:13
oh, yeah, my now deceased father. He was your dad. So you so I write for my mom, you write for your dad, precisely. My dad was not a history specialist. He was a businessman. He ran a business when he was actively working. He didn’t read much in the way of books, he would read the Wall Street Journal, he would read Fortune Magazine, he’d read hardware, he he’d read this and that, but when he retired hardware age, he was in the hardware business. Yeah. And it was a cutlery business. But so but when he retired, he had time to read books. And he rarely read novels. He liked to read stuff that really happened. And so he became my model reader, because he was not a history specialist. But he was generally interested in the world. He had an interesting background. And so and he was willing to sort of follow a good story. But it had to be a good story. It could make a historical point. But if I lead with the argument, he wasn’t interested in historical arguments. He wanted to hear the story. And the story then gave rise to a lesson, that’s fine. But one of the things that distinguishes academic history, from popular history, the academics for the purposes of their craft, they lead with the argument, because they’re engaged in this ongoing argument.
Robert Bryce 54:25
But is that why you’ve been? And is that why? Well, I’ll ask you about why you’ve been successful is because you write like, a narrative that that’s how you, you write for your dad, because you want your dad to capture that idea. Be immediately interested in that that scene that you’re setting. So is that and
Bill Brands 54:44
also because there’s a much larger audience for popular history than theirs for academic. Makes Money. There you go. So
Robert Bryce 54:53
well, just a couple more one more point on that then. So you’re I believe you just told me you’ve turned seven You could quit, you can quit. I’m
Bill Brands 55:01
gonna turn 70. And I’m gonna turn 70 in August.
Robert Bryce 55:03
Yeah. Do you? Do you have 10 More books in you? Do you have 20 More books in you? Do you think that far ahead,
Bill Brands 55:09
I just go from book to book, I don’t know. And I confess that sometimes I think I keep doing it for lack of imagination. There’s, if there were something else that I really wanted to do, if I really wanted to learn the play to the play the violin, they might say, Okay, I’ve whatever good or bad I’m going to do in the world of writing I’ve done so now I’m gonna have to learn to play the violin. But the thing is, when I get up in the morning, I’m still thinking, okay, basically, what can I write today? And the reason I, the reason I started writing a substack, is that I had time on my hands when I was waiting for my editors to deal with my books. So okay, so what can I write today, it’s also, and this is an important part of why I do what I do in the way I do what I do. So I consider my writing to be an extension to my classroom, and my classroom, I make a point of teaching non history majors at the University of Texas. So I have a class of 500 every semester, and only about 3% of them are going to be history majors. The rest are just engineers, and chemists and physicists, they my courses, essentially a required course. So they’re my audience, I have to be able to explain things to them, I have to be able to draw them in. So I envision that the broader audience that I’m writing for, in my books, it’s an expansion of them. They aren’t people who are especially interested in history. It’s just that and and with substack, I pose these questions that we’ve been talking about what does a good person do in the face of evil? What causes someone to forsake his country take arms against it? How long can we continue to resist this change? These are questions I posed to my students. Now my students are 1819 20 years old. For many of them, some of the questions actually mean something to them. But I point out that these will probably mean more to you, as time goes on. I say that because we live in a democracy, if you don’t like the world, that you are inheriting blame me. And you, Robert, and people of our age, because we’ve had our whack at this for the last 4050 years, right. And if you’ve screwed it up, we’ve screwed it up. It’s not your fault, children, you have kids that are about the age of my kids, and but statistically, you’re gonna be as old as I am someday. And if you don’t like it, then it’s on you. So pay attention. Don’t always expect to engage their interest in a really strong way, when they’re 19. But I like to think that I’m planting a seed in there that maybe 25 years later, they’ll say, oh, yeah, I had this history teacher who talked about this, and this way of looking at that. So
Robert Bryce 57:41
and then a volcano erupted. And exactly.
Bill Brands 57:47
Okay, so come and wipe us all out. And,
Robert Bryce 57:51
or, yeah, exactly an asteroid. So we’ve talked some about media and, and I think like you, I’ll just make this quick comment. substack, to me, is really a remarkable platform, and one that I’m really attached to now, and I’ve only been on it for about six months, but really like the freedom that it gives me, and also the fact that it gives me You know, I can speak directly to my audience. I don’t have to deal with other editors and the rest of it, which I don’t know, we’ll see whether it’s the sea change in media, in the history of media, you know, a lot of things have come and gone. But now I see it as quite significant. I’ll just say, do you see it the same way? Do you see it in those terms? Are you are you have you thought about that, and its significance as a platform?
Bill Brands 58:30
So one of the things that I’ve learned in my time as a historian is that it’s hard enough to explain the past and not try to predict the future any more than I absolutely. Fair enough. I’ll look outside to see if it’s going to rain in the next couple of hours. Should I take an umbrella? Yeah, but what’s going to happen to substack? Who knows? Yeah, I mean, he might be the next Facebook. But is Facebook going to be the next Facebook? You know, what’s gone? I don’t know. And but I will say this, and one of the things that I’ve figured out is kind of the motto of historians is don’t ask us what’s going to happen tomorrow. But day after tomorrow, when we know what did happen. We’ll explain why that was inevitable.
Robert Bryce 59:05
Yeah, fair enough. Okay, so I want to talk about money. We’re coming close to an hour, though. But I want to talk we talked about this the other day, when we ran into each other, Russia and Ukraine. I wrote down this question, was it inevitable, or no? Let’s talk about Russia. Is this war a surprise? It was there. Should we be surprised hindsight, was the war that Russia would invade Ukraine inevitable and connected to that was the idea of pushing NATO to Russia’s border a mistake?
Bill Brands 59:37
So, this is one of the reasons why I don’t go into prediction. Because if Vladimir Putin had simply blocked and then not gone ahead, and when he is talking about invading Ukraine, and he said no, then I could have been able to explain why he didn’t attack. Now. In fact, he went ahead and invaded and I can explain why he did invade. Which is I was joking when I said, I explained why things are inevitable, nothing is inevitable. It could have happened this way or that. And so what’s to make of it, I would say this, that is, occasionally wars get to be known as this person’s war. That person’s War, the War of 1812, in the United States was called Mr. Madison’s War by the critics of the war, they blamed it on James Madison. This is really Vladimir Putin’s war. And there was no groundswell of demand for a war in Russia. There was no pressure for war from outside Russia. If Putin had changed his mind, nobody would have said, You’re terrible, we’re going to overthrow you. So this is something he decided to do. Why did he decide to do it? Well, that’s where we get sort of back into big history and little history, the personal and the institutional stuff. What were the contributing factors? Well, probably a sense that Russia was being surrounded by Russians, longtime enemies. Now to some, to some degree, this is something that Putin probably genuinely believes. But he also recognizes that he can sell it in the marketplace of Russian political ideas. Because even though he’s sort of a dictator, he’s not really he has to persuade people to go along with him. So he, it’s a case he can make that we’re being surrounded. Now, I should point out that I can’t think of a single war in history, where the country that launched the war said, this is a war of aggression. Now, even the most egregious ly aggressive wars are, we’re defending our Eastern Front, we’re doing this, that and the other thing. And so we have to do this, we were a Cisely. And so we had no join, that we’re defending ourselves against our longtime enemies, that Ukraine is being infested with Nazis, and they’re about to join NATO. And so the Nazis were enemy in World War Two, and NATO has been our enemy during the Cold War. So if he can make this case, then it makes it easy for him to do what he wants to do. If there had not been any overtures, or at least ideas on the part of Ukraine to join NATO or the EU, would he have gone in? Quite possibly, he might have come up with a different rationale. This is an important country that borders Russia in a critical way. And we have to make sure we have a friendly government there. So countries that can try to control their universes. And the universe for a country like Russia at the moment consists of the bordering countries. So it wants to have as much influence control as it can, in the region around Russia, in the same way that the United States during the entire 20th century, even almost down till now wants to say, we’d like to be able to say who runs Cuba, right. And this is, you know, why he was such as the one in America side, and why the United States intervened, why the United States took half of Mexico, and then 18th century why the United States invaded Central America, big countries try to control the world around them. And the bigger they are, the more of the world they try to control. So there’s no good reason really no good reason to anybody else, why the United States should have spent 20 years funding war in Afghanistan, Afghanistan, for God’s sake, it’s so far away from the United States. And once al Qaeda didn’t run out of Afghanistan, there’s nothing in Afghanistan, that’s of interest to the United States, but the United States did, because it could, until decided actually couldn’t. So that’s just in the nature of things. So there are call them institutional call them great power considerations behind Russia’s attempt to control Ukraine. I think Putin bit off more than he expected. I think he thought that the war would be short, he would be able to install a government in cave that would basically do what Russia wanted to do. And he wouldn’t have to occupy the whole place. The days of, of conquering new territory, and then what moving your population in those days are long gone by, because we don’t live on most people don’t live on arable land, you don’t have to expand our population to this or that, you know, we’re in the post agregar post agrarian mostly post industrial age. So, but he could just as easily have said no. And I mean, it’s worth noting, too, that the President United States could just as easily have said, it’s not our problem, right, where it’s unfortunate. The President Obama did not react strongly to Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Right. And, you know, President Biden could have said the same thing but he chose not to.
Robert Bryce 1:04:31
And now there’s the lines have been drawn. And so now there’s now there’s a issues of pride and convenience and and being able to test weaponry, but I mean, it just does seem like there. You know, the increasing digitization of the battlefield has also changed things as well, but we could talk for a lot longer about Russia and Ukraine, but I want to talk about money because that was the last thing on the list. And we’ve already been talking for an hour, and I’ll probably be the last part of the discussion we had John and again, my guest is HW brands, Bill brands. You can find him on substack hW brands.substack.com His latest book. I quite like as the last campaign Sherman Geronimo in the war for America. Okay, so your book that you wrote now this is 2007. So now almost 20 years ago, 15 years ago, money men capitalism, democracy in the 100 years war over the American dollar. Is the war over the American dollar over.
Bill Brands 1:05:29
First of all, wars almost never and definitively, you mentioned that there’s still issues regarding who controls Indian Territory, what used to be called a new territory in Oklahoma. So
Robert Bryce 1:05:41
the McGirt decision in Oklahoma, that’s right, so the issues with this know will still
Bill Brands 1:05:47
going on, I should add, by the way, there’s a companion book to that. And it’s called greenback planet, and how the US dollar conquered the world. Uh huh. Because 100 years ago, Greek
Robert Bryce 1:05:58
greenback planet is that your book competing back planet? Yeah. Okay. So we’ll see
Bill Brands 1:06:02
400 years ago, the 100 years ago, and then at 20, say, 120 years ago, the US Dollar was not the world’s reserve currency, it was an up and comer. And the British Pound Sterling was the most obvious one, but there are other competitors. And, you know, money serves a purpose. And if there is, you know, money has to preserve its value. And it has to provide a means of exchange. And it has to be kind of a unit of account. And the dollar at the moment does all of that stuff. But at times were in the 1970s, for example, when the US is enduring high inflation, then people weren’t so crazy about holding dollars. And so the dollar will be the linchpin of world finance as long as it is preferable to the alternatives. Now, the alternatives don’t, the US dollar does not have to be displaced by a single other alternative. So in the 19th century, there was gold, there was a British Pound sterling, there were national current other national currencies. And there were, there were thoughts in the 1980s 1990s of sort of these these hybrid currencies, this market basket of currencies. So once we went off the Bretton Woods system where everything was tied, was fixed to the dollar and currencies floated, then people wanted to hedge their bets and say, Okay, well, let’s not just get dollars, let’s get dollars and pounds and marks and this, that and the other thing. So we could be coming to something like that. There’s no telling where cryptocurrency will fit into all of this. Right? And whether cryptocurrency will ever be a serious thing. Or just speculation. If central banks develop their own digital currencies, what effect will that have? So the world is it wants to operate more quickly than it used to. So in the 19th century, you could actually ship gold from London to New York. And the fact that it took six weeks was no big deal. Now, if something takes six milliseconds is probably too slow. So you know, there is that part. And as you know, time is money, traders, they they want to get closer to the New York Stock Exchange computers, because if they get a little bit closer, they get a little bit edge on the competition. So that’s going to matter. And then, of course, they’re always the things like gold and land and various other stuff. Right, so
Robert Bryce 1:08:23
we’ll have our paraphrase back to you or read back, what I’m hearing you say is that, yeah, there’s always going to be challenges to the dominant currency. And so now we’re facing this question of whether it’s going to be the yuan, and China’s talking about trading dollar or trading golden Yuan with the Saudis. And the crypto is being one, you know, other non Fiat vehicle, which seems to me the central banks could say, well, no, we’re not going to allow that and that they would just quash it whenever they want to. And there seems like there’s some of that has already been occurring with the SEC taking on some of these crypto exchanges and so on. Is that, is that a fair read on, you know, looking back at the history of the dominant currencies, that they’re always under assault?
Bill Brands 1:09:07
Yeah. Oh, yeah. Because speculators are always betting for and against a position as long as there’s more than one currency and more than one item to buy with any currency. There are people who think that they can guess better than other people. So
Robert Bryce 1:09:22
it’s George George Soros, George Soros breaking the British bank, right?
Bill Brands 1:09:26
shorting the bank to be Jay Gould trying to corner the gold market in 1869. Right, because money is useful in buying stuff. And if you can’t trade in other currencies, you can trade in the stuff that gold that currency buys. Now, ever since 1971, when the Bretton Woods system broke down and the US went off gold, then there hasn’t every currency has been a fiat currency, it
Robert Bryce 1:09:49
floating, floating and floating against every other precisely,
Bill Brands 1:09:53
and it’s entirely a matter of what do other people think about this currency, right? And so we’re guessing on that now, there are a couple of ways around this. There could eventually be, oh, single world currency. Okay. And then then there would be the issue of, okay, who controls the world currency? And how to what’s the order price levels? So is there a world central bank, and as it allow the currency to grow to shrink whatever it might be. So as long as there has been money, because money is always a proxy for other things, and there’s always been the problem of price levels. And what’s a problem for one person is an opportunity for other people. And so people, some people like inflation, right, the people who like inflation are debtors, because their debts become easier to repay. Some people like deflation, and creditors like deflation. So as long as there are people who have opposite positions, who have competing interests, in any kind of currency market, there’s going to be pushing and pulling on whatever the currency is. So the latest replace the dollar. No, not as long as there is a communist government on the lot as long as there is an authoritarian government in Beijing. That is, has shown itself willing and able to restrict flows of money in and out of the yuan, I’m not gonna invest any money, I’m not going to sell dollars for you on knowing that the Chinese government can say brands, now you can’t take your money out, you can’t get dollars again out. And the Chinese government so far shows no indication of a willingness to give up that control. The reason that the dollar has been so useful, and now I should add, the dollar is accepted by the rest of the world, not because they love the dollar, because it’s the least of the unfavorable options out there.
Robert Bryce 1:11:47
But House best house best house in a bad neighborhood? Precisely.
Bill Brands 1:11:51
And the fact that Yeah, we didn’t go over the cliff on the the debt limit. But we got really close. And that’s gotten a lot of people thinking, I don’t know, this isn’t such a good idea to be so invested in dollars, the fact that the United States in the last 10 years, has gone so heavily into using economic sanctions, if I’m foreign. If I’m an oligarch in Brazil, or Russia or somewhere else, I’m not going to be so quick to buy that $50 million place that just went for sale on Lake Austin, or a condo on billionaires row in New York, because they might say I can’t sell it. Right. So I will have lost the money. So that the temptation when you hold the world’s reserve currency is to use it for political purposes. That’s what governments do. They use things for political purposes. But the temptation every time that is used that way, it weakens the confidence of other people in the dollar as this reliable unit of value and all the other things that money supplies. So
Robert Bryce 1:12:57
so it’s ultimately a question of faith. Right? What is what is, what do you believe? And this is one of the things why on the podcast, I asked people, what do you believe in? What’s your economic scenario? What did you what part of the narrative around the economy Do you believe in? And therefore Where are you putting your money? Right, so, okay, but yeah,
Bill Brands 1:13:15
I’m in. I’m in treasuries, mostly. And I’m getting close to retirement. So mostly treasuries, but some equities. Right. And, you know, the nice thing about treasuries is well, at least so far, they are not defaulted on considering how it might turn out that the interest that I’m getting is somewhat less than the inflation rate. So in mighty road slightly, but it’s not going to be like if I bought Mehta two years ago and watch it go down by two thirds. Right, you know, securities. Yeah, I got don’t do that. Thankfully, the bigger one, it’s an uncertain world out that there are no guarantees.
Robert Bryce 1:13:51
Right. So last two questions, Bill. And we’ve been talking now for more than an hour and I want to honor your time and I warned you that I did warn you you have to introduce yourself and then you write a lot of books. I do a lot of reading I’m sure you do too. What are you reading now? What other books are you reading what’s on the top of your list?
Bill Brands 1:14:10
At the moment I have been reading from the complete works of H Rider Haggard, Rider Haggard was Brit, British writer who
Robert Bryce 1:14:26
Bill Brands 1:14:27
and then rider like riding horses. And then haggard ha GG ARD okay. And he was essentially the inventor of the lost world genre of the 1890s and early 20th century. So his most famous book is called King Solomon’s Mines. And its protagonists are these three British guys who hear this rumor about diamond mines in the middle of darkest Africa, and they go on this adventure to find it. And he wrote in a suit reserve other books that pick up on other adventures of these characters, the books I’ve, I’ve read most of them before, but I’m going back to read them, because despite the fact that they definitely show their age, so it’s in the same vein as Rudyard Kipling. And so, if one wanted to take offense at the characterization of people in the ER in the 1890s, you easily could. And I’ve, I probably wouldn’t assign it to my students these days, just because they’d have a hard time getting past it. We get past that. And it’s one of the reasons I’m this long way of saying, for my enjoyment, I don’t read nonfiction. I do read fiction. Yeah, because one of the things I want to do is figure out how these fiction writers tell their stories. I’m a storyteller, I have my own ways of judging whether a story is valid or not, but I want to see how other people craft their stories. And writer haggard tells a rip roaring adventure story. So I read it and, and for those moments, Wednesday, okay, here I am, you know, in the middle of this desert in Africa, and, you know, elephants are charging us from all directions. Okay. Now, so how do people tell stories? So that’s what I’ve been reading lately. Now, I also read, I’ve been a faithful subscriber, to the The Economist magazine. And in fact, we were talking about what I’m listening to when I walked at Barton Springs and elsewhere, very often, I’m listening to the audio version of that. It’s, I one of the things I really like about it is it has a good perspective on American politics. It’s this magazine was founded in the 1840s. It’s been published in London ever since one of the longest running it they call themselves a newspaper, but it’s a weekly news magazine. Right? And they can comment on American politics from the outside. So they they’re not inside, they’re on the outside looking in. So I read that I read just all sorts of other stuff. I read poetry, I sometimes write poetry on the side. So
Robert Bryce 1:16:59
in all your spare time, yeah. It’s interesting. The Economist, you bring that up, because that is not bylined, which I think is an interesting
Bill Brands 1:17:08
Oh, and this is striking. So I read old stuff a lot. So I read old news. And in the 19th century, every newspaper is just like the economist and byline. Yeah. And boy, I tell you, it’s I wonder how hard it is for the economist to maintain this, because it’s the last bastion of unbind articles, but it gives every article the authority of the institution. Right? So if you’re a if it’s your first article in The Economist, it benefits from this 170 year history of The Economist. Yeah.
Robert Bryce 1:17:44
Yeah, gives it a weight and also an isolation from the cancel culture and an isolation from the ego that often can come out, which, okay, so last question, then, Bill, what gives you hope,
Bill Brands 1:17:59
my students, so I insist on teaching freshmen. And I teach a lot of freshmen. And for me, the best day of my year, is the first day of the fall semester. And I make a point of teaching on Monday, Wednesday, Friday morning, or semesters always begin on a Monday. So for most of my students, I’m the first college class they’ve ever attended. And it is it just renews me every year because they come in for nearly all of them. This is the first time they’ve ever lived away from home. It’s the first time they’ve ever had an opportunity to think for themselves to decide whether that persona that follow them through middle school and high school where they want to change that, who they want to be. They have a sense of responsibility that their high school teachers, they would follow them around and make sure they got their assignments. I don’t follow him around, you turn it in, or you know, I explained this to them. When I first started teaching when I first started teaching. The first classes that I taught were high school classes I taught in high school back in the 1970s. I was five years older than my oldest students. So I was 23. And my oldest students were 18. And so I was almost there, Pierre. And in fact, it was teaching an all boys school. And so among the seniors, so the big guys, there’s kind of this duking out to see you know, who’s the, the alpha male here, so I had to make that very clear. Now, of course, I’ve gotten older as time passes, my students haven’t, my students are still 18 years old. In fact, some of my students are now that grandkids of my original students Oh, Lord, but
Robert Bryce 1:19:36
first in your first high school, this was in Oregon, that’s where you’re from? Yeah.
Bill Brands 1:19:39
Okay. And so but it’s been it’s fantastic. Because they come in they’re not jaded like me, probably like you were and and we’ve seen all this stuff. We know why every good idea that’s put forward is probably going to fail. Because there are too many interests. It’s going to step toes on all this stuff. They’re not they don’t suffer from that. They have this idea that okay, all this screwed up stuff that They’ll folks put together we can fix, and we’re going to do it. And I just love it, that they get involved in these political goals and these crusades, and this that and the other thing, and as crazy and wrongheaded as some of them are, that’s fine. That is That is their strength. That is it, it gives me hope that they have hope. Because I know that, okay, I are part of the same generation, Robert, and all of us, we’ve had our shot at it. And we’ve done some things, right, we screwed some other things up. Now it’s their turn, I’m going to reflect on a personal aspect to this. So I don’t know if you had this experience with your parents, maybe with your father, that my dad wanted to keep driving as long as he could. And I had to steal his keys, I had to hide his keys long as he should have been driving, you know, and it was just this arc of authority. So I made this decision that in my household, the youngest person in the car, who had a license was the driver. And so, you know, and it’s, it’s kind of a way of saying, Okay, you’re responsible for things now, so act responsibly. That’s the way I feel when I teach my students because more and more of the questions I posed, my students are not questions of what were the terms of the Treaty of, you know, the Webster Ashburton Treaty of 1851? No, it’s what does it mean to be human? What would you have done? If you were drafted into the Confederate Army in 1861? What would you have done, you know, and all this sort of thing. So it’s really getting back to what I was saying, what does it mean to be human? And who are we? How do we do I find ourselves how do we define other people? How do we act toward other people? And you know, we’ve had my generation has had our chance. Now it’s your chance, and the fact that that they’re optimistic? Oh, yes. I mean, there’s this cloud that sort of hangs over them, but for most of them that I teach at the University of Texas and UT is a great place they all come there you know, they want to be there. They’re happy to be there. And they have these great hopes these big dreams for themselves for them and this is this is what gives me hope.
Robert Bryce 1:22:13
Well, that’s a good place to stop then. That’s great. Refreshing and clear that you are charged up by that the way you how animated you’re talking about it is great. So my guest has been HW brands HW Bill brands, my friend. We live in the same neighborhood here in Austin. You can find him on substack hW brands.substack.com His latest book, The last campaign Sherman Geronimo and the war for America. He has another book coming out this year. He will have another book out I’m sure next year. The man is not a man. He’s a machine of history. Bill thanks a million for being on the power hungry podcasts been great fun to talk to you, Robert. Take care, and I’ll see you in podcast land. Thanks for tuning in to this episode of the power hungry podcast tune in for the next one. It might be as good as this one we never know. Until then. See ya.