The halls of the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS) reverberate to this day when curators and historians mention the name of Colonel George Morgan Chinn. And the reactions vary depending on the context of the conversation. Carlton Jackson chronicles Chinn’s life in this first full-length biography, published following the passing of the author. In a book driven by stories and vignettes, the author introduces the reader to Chinn’s storied Kentucky family roots, football at Centre College, shenanigans at the Cave House, service as a decorated member of the United States Marine Corps, involvement with weapons development, and public service as director of the KHS. The author unfortunately falls short of providing a critical biography of Chinn, missing an opportunity to place Chinn’s career within a larger historical context.
In reading this biography, several basic questions come to mind regarding Chinn’s role in developing weaponry for the U.S. government: was Chinn a key national figure in the Cold War–era military industrial complex or was he a Kentucky success story with exaggerated importance? In writing The Machine Gun, a four-volume history of the weapon, did Chinn cement himself as the preeminent weapons-system expert of his time? With government funding for military research & development (R&D) in the Cold War era on the rise—to the benefit of many universities—did history museums also benefit from this funding and prove a critical testing ground for military R&D? This reader begs for more context to help answer these questions.
In a change of pace, the author turns to the relationship between Colonel Chinn and Dr. Thomas D. Clark, state historian laureate of Kentucky. They had largely conflicting viewpoints regarding the KHS. The author claims this resulted because “one was a professional, [End Page 88] the other an amateur, and this difference brought about an unending breach between the two” (p. 86). An additional rift sprang from disagreements about the relationship between the museum and the archives, and whether or not the two should exist as one entity. Clark feared Chinn would turn over the archives to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and transform the society into a military arms museum. The Clark-Chinn affair continued throughout the remainder of their lives. However, the two agreed on one overarching position: the importance of maintaining archival material related to Kentucky history within the borders of the commonwealth. Historians and archivists are thankful for their agreement to this day.
The author makes an extraordinary claim for Chinn’s role in matters related to civil rights during efforts to integrate Kentucky schools in the 1960s. Jackson writes that Chinn “helped state police commander James E. Bassett (‘Ted’) control racial situations that threatened the peace of the Commonwealth’s schools, colleges, and universities” (p. 126). The state police claimed a lack of weaponry; Chinn used his connections to acquire weapons for the police, which, according to Bassett, “discourage[d] citizens from riotous behavior.” The author summarizes this event by stating, “Many would-be rioters stayed at home when they learned of this situation. Thus, Kentucky’s integration was more peaceful than that of most other states in the American South. This happy result was thanks in part to Colonel George M. Chinn’s willingness to help the state police achieve racial equality peacefully” (pp. 126–27). This unfortunate claim lacks any evidential support, as the fight to desegregate Kentucky’s social institutions continued into the 1970s with a focus on school busing and equal housing rights—issues that still resonate in current social and political discourse. Acquiring guns for the state police did not create a more peaceful and progressive integration effort in Kentucky.
Based on an interesting, yet narrow, selection of primary sources, the author supplements traditional archival materials with an overreliance on oral-history interviews, email exchanges, and personal reflections. Chinn was a complex figure and deserves a critical [End Page 89] biography—unfortunately this is not the book. The historian concerned...