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Hammer, by Hammer
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Hammer, by Hammer

This is the story of the luckiest man in the world. Son of Julius Hammer, a steel-foundry worker and pro-Bolshevik Russian Jewish immigrant from Odessa, who became a medical doctor and launched a drug firm, Dr. Armand Hammer—and can there be any doubt that the fervent Marxist activist Julius, a leader of the Socialist Labor Party in New York had named his second of three sons for the Arm & Hammer, international symbol of union-socialism, rather than the obscure literary character he always asserted—managed throughout his long and prosperous life to appear in just the right places, at just the right times, with just the right connections.

Blessed with good health, grandfather and uncle wealthy entrepreneurs, a tough-as-nails older brother “demon incarnate with his fists” who defended Armand in every school-yard scrap and provided back-up as needed throughout his life, Armand attended the very best schools and met just the right people. Taking charge of his father’s drug business at the age of nineteen when his father became ill, and when Armand had just begun medical school, he worked at the business full-time and was awarded his medical degree even though he failed to attend most classes, and missed at least one final exam. The irony of self-styled working-class socialists exercising traditional class privileges in such fashion is inescapable.

At the age of 23, having never practiced medicine or traveled overseas or indeed held a job outside of the family business, but anointed as head of a major American pharmaceutical company and personally already worth a fortune, Armand arrived in Moscow in July 1921 to distribute medical supplies to relieve the famine on the Volga River. Not only did the fame of his pro-Bolshevik father precede him, granting him quick personal access to Lenin and to many other top-level Bolsheviks, but he arrived almost to the day that the new Bolshevik regime, in near collapse from the effects of their prodrazhverstka, or the forced requisitioning of food during War Communism—which had aggravated if not directly caused the Volga famine—had decided to beat a hasty retreat by allowing a re-introduction of private property under the NEP (New Economic Policy). Armand, with his politically-correct background and his millions in free money became Golden Boy and Man of the Hour.

Ensconced in the best quarters the Soviets possessed, Armand was allowed to invest in several monopolistic business ventures in Russia (asbestos mine, pencil factory) and enhance his personal fortune at the expense of the common Russian, and to become the Soviets’ exclusive broker for a host of American corporations that wished to invest in the new climate of NEP or that were solicited by the Soviets to rescue the Soviet economy, obtaining a cut from these ventures as well.

Not content with these, Armand snapped up a fortune in Czarist souvenirs, jewelry, art, and other memorabilia and exported them to the U.S.—again possible only by virtue of his superior connections—where he founded his life-long and renowned and very profitable Hammer Galleries. He departed the Soviet Union as fortuitously as he arrived, just before Stalin closed the borders permanently to the West. Virtually alone of the Western investors whose concessions were expropriated, Armand obtained full payment for his businesses.

His later entry into the oil business was similarly fortuitous. Having stumbled into the rights to a pair of disfavored California oil leases, he drilled twice—and twice hit pay dirt. A decade later he repeated this feat in Libya, striking oil in a place where one of the Seven Sisters had tried many times and failed. Like the California wells, all his Libyan fields were gushers.

During the later years of Hammer’s life, he assumed the role of unofficial go-between used by Presidents and Premiers to implement detente and ease Cold War tensions. His many appearances remind one of Forrest Gump, seeming to show up at every significant event of the twentieth century.

The controversy that surrounds Hammer’s life is this: was he or was he not a Soviet agent during the Cold War? You won’t find the answer here. Hammer admits he was a business broker for the Soviets, but refrains from acknowledging that he was the Soviet Union’s de facto ambassador to the U.S. during the 1920s, though this previous role is the only plausible explanation for his later status as roving go-between. Some believe that he should have been executed with the Rosenbergs for betraying secrets; others support Hammer’s own claim that he was no more than a clever entrepreneur and a hard-nosed capitalist who never had much interest in politics.

A lesser controversy is whether Julius was responsible for the abortion-related death of a young woman patient, which death caused father Julius to lose his medical license and serve several years in prison. Some allege that Armand has admitted elsewhere that the physician on that day was none other than medical student Armand himself. Though Armand refers in this book to an illegal operation that he performed while in medical school, he states the incident had no impact on his career, and he does not tie that affair to the fatality that led to his father’s conviction.

Though overly long, this book is well-written and a must-read for anyone intrested in American-Soviet relations. One wonders, however, what remained unsaid and accompanied Hammer to his grave. —SiriusReviews.com

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