I probably read more books in this category than any other (including HCI and CSCW, I’ll admit). I mostly read about the 20th century, but some other periods intrude every so often. Dan Russell has accused me in public of reading a lot about World War II, and I confess that I do. But it’s not the only period, and recently, I’ve had a special interest in the Seventeenth Century.
Madeleine Albright. Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948. New York: HarperCollins, 2012.
Madeleine Albright was the US Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, serving from 1997 to 2001. As she states in her introduction to this intriguing book, she was 59 when she began serving as Secretary of State, and at that time assumed she knew who she was and what her background was. She was in for a major surprise. She was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937, and her family fled to England to escape Hitler’s grasp. She was raised as a Roman Catholic, and when she married, became a convert to the Episcopalian faith. In early 1997, around the time she was being vetted to be Secretary of State, an article appeared in the Washington Post revealing that three of her grandparents and others in her family had died in the Holocaust. Members of her family, and later herself, traveled to the Czech Republic to investigate these claims, and verified that indeed her family had been Jewish. This fact underlies this remarkable memoir, where armed with the new information about her true roots, she covers the period of her early years and the struggles of both her family and her homeland. It’s one of the most gripping memoirs I have ever read.
Scott Anderson. Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. New York: Doubleday, 2013.
Like many in my generation, I’ve been fascinated by the figure of T.E. Lawrence ever since seeing David Lean’s 1962 film. I had read earlier biographies of Lawrence, which, like the film, tended to persist in developing his celebrity. Anderson’s book is a sober, much more balanced story of that period. It opened my eyes about what was really going on, who the other significant players were (several of whom I’d never heard of in the earlier accounts), and what a complex and, in the end, sad period this was. I like the trope of the simple change of preposition from “of” to “in” in the title of the book. Read this for a much better version of Lawrence and the context of his escapades.
Sarah Bakewell. How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. New York: Other Press, 2010.
This is perhaps the most unusual biography I’ve ever read. It takes as its organizing principle the attempt to answer the question, “how to live.” Then in 20 chapters it takes one of Montaigne’s attempts at an answer, amplifies it, and uses the opportunity to weave in details about Montaigne’s life. By the end, we’ve covered his life and sampled many of his essays. It’s a tour de force, extremely well crafted. It also reinforces the point that Montaigne’s way of writing created an entirely new genre, the personal essay. No topic was too mundane, or for that matter, uninteresting, to tackle in prose. It definitely led me to sample his essays (which, by the way, are voluminous!).
Mark Bowden. Huế 1968: A Turning Point in the American War in Vietnam. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017
I was very much aware of events in 1968, a year like no other. The Tet Offensive was startling to all of us. After months, nay, years, of optimistic reports that the end was in sight, victory was near, there was light at the end of the tunnel, suddenly the whole of South Vietnam was under surprise attack. The US Embassy in Saigon was shelled, cities all over the south were inundated. The worst was Hue, a lovely, historic city on the west coast of South Vietnam, not far from the DMV, the border with the North. Despite denials from General Westmoreland (“Westy”), the National Liberation Front (“the Front”) (consisting of the Viet Cong (VC) and the North Vietnam Army (NVA)) took total control of Hue, and it took nearly a month of bloody and frustrating fighting for the US (MACV) and South Vietnamese (ARVN) forces to reclaim it. Though Westy and the US leadership claimed victory, it was a major turning point. At the end of February, in a famous TV recounting of the Tet events, Walter Cronkite, the dean of American news hosts, memorably said that it was now clear the war was a stalemate, and we needed to look for an honorable end of it. Victory was not possible. It stunned the nation; I remember that broadcast to this day. The antiwar movement now extended to middle America, who were losing faith in US leadership. A month after the end of Tet, Lyndon Johnson said he was not running for reelection. Bowden’s book covers all of this in great, often grisly detail. American forces, mostly US Marines, had to fight an urban battle in Hue that they were not trained for. US leadership, denying the reality of the Front’s numbers and control of Hue, repeatedly sent small forces into disastrous encounters with the Front’s substantial forces. Both sides took major losses, but the biggest losers were the civilians in Hue. At least 80% of the city was turned to rubble, mostly by MACV and ARVN artillery and bombing. Though exact numbers will never be known, at least 8000 civilians were killed, either accidentally or intentionally. In 1968 I was facing induction, as deferments for graduate study were about to end. So this was all emotionally very real to me. Bowdon vividly brings it all back, with gripping details about soldiers on both sides of the conflict. It’s one of many accounts, sadly, of the enormous stupidity of war. Yet the courage and bravery of those involved is incredible.
Andrei Cherny. The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2008.
This book was suggested to me by my sister, Linda. At first the title was a bit off putting, but upon embarking on a read, I was gripped by the unfolding story of the Berlin Airlift. I of course knew in general about the airlift and the bravery of the pilots and the resilience of the Berliners. But many of the details were new, including the whole story of the candy bombing itself. Initially one pilot, Hal Halvorsen, began dropping candy from his plane as he approached Tempelhof airport, suspended from handkerchiefs as parachutes. It grew into a major sensation, and convinced many of the Berliners of the Americans’ good intentions. The Airlift also played a key role in Harry Truman’s upset win over Dewey in the 1948 election. And there are many other dramatic threads to the story.
Stanley Cloud & Lynne Olson. The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
In the late 1930s, as war loomed in Europe, CBS turned to Edward R. Murrow to cover these events on radio. Broadcast news was in its infancy, and the style of live or near-live coverage that the team assembled by Murrow provided changed the nature of broadcast news forever. Murrow himself was based most of the time in London, and of course provided gripping accounts of the Blitz and other action there. A set of correspondents — ten men and one woman — were scattered among the other venues, and provided reports of action there. For instance, William L. Shirer, based in Berlin, gave accounts of the developments in Nazi Germany. After the war he published a series of volumes about the war, and after having been incredibly close to Murrow, had a falling out that lasted the rest of their lives. Many other names continued to be familiar in radio and television news well into my childhood, including Winston Burdett, Charles Collingwood, Richard C. Hottelet, Eric Sevareid, and Howard K. Smith. Radio listeners during the war were spellbound by their reports, and they set new standards for what international reporting could be. Many of these people continued to have dominant roles in TV and radio well into the 60s and 70s. Sadly, after the war, CBS and the other major networks evolved away from the kind of careful reporting reflected by the Murrow Boys, and led to the kind of commercialism and sensationalism that characterizes much of today’s TV news in particular. But Cloud and Olson tell the fascinating story of all these figures and their strengths and foibles.
Ken Cuthbertson. A Complex Fate: William L. Shirer and the American Century. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015.
William L. Shirer was a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in the 1920s and 30s, and became a member of the Murrow Boys (see Cloud & Olson, above) during the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the war. He reported for CBS radio from Berlin until it became too dangerous to remain there. The fact that he returned to the US rather than joining Murrow in London became a sad schism in their relationship that was never resolved. And, of course, after the war he published a series of books about his experiences in the war, culminating in his huge best seller, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), which I read in high school when it came out and hooked me on history in general and World War II in particular for the rest of my life. Besides the tragic rift with Murrow, he was also suspected of being a Communist sympathizer, which complicated his postwar employment prospects. But the income from his books helped him cope. This excellent biography is a rich and fascinating story of one of the major journalists of the 20th century. The cover photo is Shirer at Compiègne in June of 1940 reporting on the French surrender to the Germans.
Richard J. Evans. The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin, 2004.
—–. The Third Reich in Power. New York: Penguin, 2005.
—–. The Third Reich at War. New York: Penguin, 2009.
These three volumes constitute Richard J. Evans’ majestic history of the Third Reich, from its beginning to its tumultuous ending. Drawing on numerous sources, these volumes trace the character and actions of the Third Reich in all of its many ramifications. Even if you’ve read a lot about World War II, and its origins and outcomes, you will be thoroughly rewarded by reading this comprehensive history.
John A. Farrell. Richard Nixon: The Life. New York: Doubleday, 2017.
I have no idea how many biographies of Richard Nixon there are. Before acquiring this one, I had six on my bookshelf (the real one). But this one is special. As Farrell points out in his Acknowledgements, a trove of new material has become available in the past few decades that give the biographer access to many new details of Nixon’s life. And, as those of us who have lived through most of his life know, it’s an amazing story. I don’t need to recount the stories here. One compelling element of this biography is that the complete set of Nixon tapes (minus some that contained highly classified material) has now been transcribed, so Farrell is able to quote the exact words of many of the participants engaged in the activities during Nixon’s presidency. But also, a number of diaries, notes, files, and other rich material have become available, making for a very engaging narrative. One story that Farrell was able to confirm from new material is Nixon’s unlawful secret efforts during the 1968 election to persuade the South Vietnamese government to avoid the peace process initiated by the Johnson administration, under the assumption that Nixon would bring them a better deal if elected. He of course in the long run didn’t. The President elected to end the war in Vietnam instead prolonged it by almost five more years, at a huge cost in lives, internal dissent, and American goodwill. Farrell has a Nixon quote from his farewell talk to the White House staff that is so revealing: “Always remember, others may hate you — but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
David Fromkin. A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. New York: Henry Holt, 1989 [2009, with a new Afterward by the author]
Many times I have acquired a new book when someone refers to a title while giving a talk. I distinctly remember the occasion where that happened with this book. It was a talk by Madeleine Albright at the Michigan Business School many years ago. Fromkin’s book languished, partially read, on my bookshelf for a long time, but I took it up recently and read it all the way through. The Middle East is an incredibly complicated place, and part of the problem with the years following the end of World War I was that the principals involved in making the peace, England, France, and the US, were woefully ignorant of the region. Fromkin particularly focuses on the British, who thought their mission was to govern via proxy the new states emerging in much of the Middle East. But the vast ignorance of the British, coupled with their arrogance, foiled any chance of a reasonable outcome. As Fromkin points out late in the volume, it took Europe 1500 years to migrate from the chaos after the fall of Rome to the emergence of stable nation states that we know today. European powers tried to impose their nation state model on all the parts of the world that they colonized, or desired to colonize. Almost nowhere did this work, and the Middle East is certainly a classic example. The book is incredibly detailed, but that level of detail is necessary to understand why the peace process following World War I ensured there would be no peace in this region for a long time (I’m tempted to say forever). Alas, governments seem to be forever making decisions without good understanding of the situation, and the 21st century has not brought any end to this horrible tendency.
Doris Kearns Goodwin. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.
There is an enormous library of books about Lincoln. I own a number of them, but this is the one that I found most remarkable. While the early history of Lincoln and his rivals is covered, the focus is on the period of Lincoln’s nomination to candidacy in 1860 up until his assassination. The interesting sequel is that Lincoln appointed all of his rivals to key positions in his cabinet. Asked why he did this, he replied, “We needed the strongest men in the party in the cabinet. These were the very strongest men.” While this resulted in conflict over policy and Civil War details, it was a remarkable strategy, and Kearns goes to great length to show how it resulted in good decisions in the long run. All in all, a remarkable portrait of a president dealing with the gravest threat to the survival of our country.
A.C. Grayling. The Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century & the Birth of the Modern Mind. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.
This book reviews the incredible range of personas active in the 17th century. It is a remarkable age, and Grayling’s claim is that it marks the transition from the earlier periods dominated by faith and authority to the modern view characterized by reason and observation. It was reading this volume, and Snyder’s book on Vermeer and Leeuwenheok, that rekindled my interest in the 17th century.
Max Hastings. Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
As Dan Russell has pointed out, I have read a lot about World War II. While there are many competitors for this “honor,” World War II is certainly up there as one of the most decisive events of the 20th century. And, if you wanted to read an excellent one volume account of the war, I would recommend this volume. Hastings is certainly one of the best military historians of this era, and this volume may be one of his very best. It is thorough (651 pages of text), and illuminating. There is great courage and great stupidity, on all sides. And the human cost is simply amazing. His figure is that the war cost 60 million lives — I’ve even seen estimates that go as high as 70 million. And those numbers are just the deaths. The horrible injured, the displaced, the incarcerated, only add more terrible numbers. I must agree with Hastings’s summary statement on the last page: “this was the greatest and most terrible event in human history.” Read his account for the excruciating details.
Walter Isaacson. Leonardo da Vinci. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2017.
A biography of da Vinci could go in any of several categories in my bookshelf. I put it here because of his enormous historical significance. Probably most think of him as an artist, in particular, a painter. Many will think of him as an inventor, an engineer, a scientist. His famous notebooks are great literature. Isaacson has done a marvelous job of portraying da Vinci in all of his amazing varieties. He relies extensively on the extant 7200 pages of Leonardo’s notebooks, though it takes a lot of detective work to even work through them, as Leonardo seldom dated any of his entries. And the surviving pieces of the notebooks (likely only a part of them) are scattered in various places. But they are rich in detail about Leonardo’s enormous energy and curiosity. They are also filled with drawings that are themselves works of art. Isaacson repeatedly points out that Leonardo noticed things about the world that would not get picked up again for centuries. He explored anatomy, fluid dynamics, geology, astronomy, geometry, architecture, weaponry, and many more domains. Isaacson’s book is richly illustrated. He does engage Leonardo’s art in considerable critical detail, which I am not skillful enough to comment on. But it is a thoroughly engaging biography.
Tony Judt. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. New York: Penguin, 2005.
I have been alive during the entire period covered by this book though of course I was at best only partially aware of what was going on from the early 1950s. This is an extraordinary period in our history. Judt’s book rightly focuses on Europe, so the US only figures into the story now and then. But what a period it was. At the end of the war Europe was mostly in shambles. It took years to recover from the devastation of the battles and the bombing, from the decimation of economies and the huge debts rung up. The US Marshall Plan played an important role. By the late 1940s Europe was divided, and the Cold War was underway. There were repeated tensions and incidents, all covered in great and insightful detail by Judt. The emergence of NATO and the Warsaw Pact made the sides in the Cold War clear. The gradual emergence of prosperity in Western Europe and the terror and poverty of Eastern Europe unfold. Hungary is invaded by the Soviets in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968. During this same time the European powers lost their colonies all over the world, transforming the nature of their economies and the balance of power. As a result, the western European countries began turning toward each other for markets and sources of strength. The gradual organization of most of Europe’s economies into the European Union unfolds throughout the 50s, 60s, and beyond. The culture wars and political rearrangements are traced in great detail. And, most surprising of all, is the decline and collapse of the Communist states, culminating in 1989 in much of Eastern Europe and, most surprising of all, in the Soviet Union itself in 1991. Most of these changes happened surprisingly peacefully. However, the great exception was the demise of Yugoslavia and the horrible, tragic Balkan wars of the 1990s. Following the fall of communism, the European Union underwent extensive enlargement, with new stress points and challenges. In the last chapter, he describes the growing disillusionment with the US among Europeans, especially during the George W. Bush presidency and the widely unpopular invasion of Iraq. Given that the book was published in 2005, one can only wonder what he would have written about the current Trump presidency re Europe. In a moving Epilogue, he explores the long and morally complex shadow cast over Europe by the Holocaust. In many ways, Europe did not handle its memory very well. Judt explores all of these events in insightful detail, portraying the many interesting figures involved as well as the ebb and flow of political, economic, and cultural matters. It once again reveals to me that I only know so much about what is going on during the times I have followed events in the news. We even lived in England in the 1989-90 period when so much was changing, but were only aware of small parts of it. I gained great insight from this massive (831 pages of text) and thoroughly engaging volume.
Ward Just.To What End: Report from Vietnam. New York: Public Affairs, 1968, 2000.
This book was originally published in 1968, though it covers the author’s experiences from December 1965 to May 1967. At that time we of course had no idea where the war in Vietnam was going. But Ward Just, covering it for the Washington Post, finds the whole affair confusing and frustrating. Knowing what we know now, we can see in his account the threads that would lead to the disaster that followed. But it’s so interesting to read an account from that era. The 2000 edition contains a reflective forward, but the text itself is unchanged from when it was written (ironically, while the author was in Ireland). The title is both prophetic and profound. What were we doing there, and why?
Maury Klein. A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013.
We all know that one of the keys to the outcome of World War II was the mobilization of US industry. While it indeed happened, and by the later stages of the war our industrial output was astounding, the road there was complex and in many ways frustratingly slow. It was a complex process, to be sure. How would it be managed? How could industries that had manufactured things for peace be transformed to make things for war? There were political complexities to overcome. There were reluctant CEOs. There was labor strife to resolve. Women and minorities had to be recruited, and often there were major relocations involved as people from rural areas moved to the cities. Maury Klein’s monumental history — nearly 900 pages of it — tells about all these complexities in what I found to be page-turning detail. The whole process turned a nation barely emerging from the Depression into the international superpower that dominated the second half of the twentieth century.
Erik Larson. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. New York: Crown Publishers, 2015.
The sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat in 1915 was an event that stunned the world. Larson’s gripping account of the event, both the factors leading up to it and the sequelae, makes for engaging reading. So engaging, I might add, that this is almost the only book I’ve ever read on-line (I have an overwhelming preference for the old-fashioned, paper varieties). The tragedy of the event is of course magnified by all the twists and turns that could have led to its prevention. British intelligence knew a lot about the location of U-20, the boat that carried out the sinking. No protective destroyers escorted the Lusitania even though the Royal Navy knew U-20 was lurking. No preventive zig-zagging was carried out by the Lusitania. The captain of the ship held a naive view of the unlikely threat to a civilian ocean liner. Larson is a master storyteller.
Fredrik Logevall. Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam. New York: Random House, 2012.
This book traces the history of France’s involvement with Vietnam. It was of course an overseas possession of France, part of its empire. But it was troubled, and led to a prolonged conflict, ending when the French lost a decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu. Previously unknown to me, the US was involved throughout this history. It begins in 1919 at the Versailles treaty talks that followed World War I, when Ho Chi Minh made an unsuccessful attempt to achieve Vietnam’s independence. Woodrow Wilson, the US President, refused to consider it. Throughout France’s war in Vietnam, the US provided military aid, without which the French could not have sustained their long and ultimately unsuccessful struggle. The US was a key player in the Geneva negotiations in 1954 that led to the split of Vietnam into North and South at the 17th parallel. A key part of these negotiations was the US role in keeping the peace in southeast Asia. By the late 1950s Ngo Dinh Diem visited Washington to appeal to Eisenhower for support of South Vietnam. The first US advisers in Vietnam are killed in 1959. And, of course, the story escalates in the 1960s and beyond, not part of this volume. Logevall covers in elegant detail all of the multiple story lines that ultimately lead to our long and very unhappy involvement.
Diarmaid MacCulloch. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Penguin, 2009.
I have become very interested in the history of religion, and MacCulloch’s masterful opus (1184 pages!) provided an excellent starting point. His reference in the title to 3000 years is due to his tracing the historical origins of Christian thought back a thousand years before the birth of Christ. And what a complex history it is. The church as an institution, shaped by multiple historical forces, divided again and again, and affected by an incredible range of personalities, survives yet today in its multiple forms. This is a book of history that engaged me like no other.
Margaret MacMillan. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. New York: Random House, 2001.
This is a detailed history of the Versailles peace treaty process, an event that most agree changed the course of 20th century history. Indeed, its repercussions are still being felt, especially in the Middle East. MacMillan richly portrays the many significant figures in the drama. While she agrees that the six months of the treaty deliberations had long-lasting effects, she believes it is too simple to blame everything that happened in the century on what happened here. But it certainly laid the groundwork for all of the actors and events that came later, whether it’s the rise of Hitler in Germany, the rise of Japan in the east, the emergence of Israel and all the chaos in the Middle East, the control of eastern Europe by the Soviet Union, and even key events in the US.
Evan Mawdsley. Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet War 1941-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2–5.
Until I read this book, I had no idea about the scale of the war in the east. Our usual understanding of World War II is so colored by the American view of things. But the struggle between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany was of a size and extent that is simply staggering. There is no question in my mind that Germany lost the war because of its invasion of the Soviet Union and the resulting monumental engagements in the east. Of course the whole struggle developed in such a strange pattern. When Germany invaded in the summer of 1941, they marched almost all the way to Moscow and other key cities in astonishing fashion. But with the onset of winter, their progress stalled, in part because they had never expected that things would last that long and they were ill-prepared for the bitter winter weather. And of course the stalemate and ultimate loss at Stalingrad was the decisive turning point. By that time Soviet industry, aided by the US Lend-Lease program, was producing war materiel on a huge scale. And the Red Army leadership and the incredible commitment of unbelievable numbers of troops turned the tide. The scale of eastern battles, including gigantic tank battles, was just simply incredible, like nothing that happened on other fronts. The losses in men and materiel were unbelievable. Soviet losses were roughly 10 million men, and in addition, an estimated 17 million civilians were killed. German losses were roughly 3.5 million men. As a point of comparison, total British losses during the war were 350 thousand, American losses were about 300 thousand. There were months on the eastern front when the Germans and Soviets each loss more men than either of these figures. It was just an incredible carnage. And Mawdsley covers these matters in gripping detail.
Lisa McGirr. The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016.
This is an eye-opening account of what is perhaps one of the most disastrous legal actions in the history of the US. By banning the sale of alcohol, the 18th amendment unleashed a host of unintended consequences. It is widely known that this gave rise to organized crime. But it gave rise to a major expansion of the federal government in law enforcement. And the law was enforced disproportionately in African American, immigrant, and poor white communities. Indeed, even the lawmakers who passed or supported the amendment had access to alcohol in speakeasies and other covert sites. Such discriminatory enforcement led to the rise of an electoral base that helped FDR gain the White House. It also led to the emergence of vigilante groups who worked “in cooperation” with the federal agents, and among other things, led to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which had almost disappeared after the enforcement of laws against lynching. McGirr’s excellent book is full of the details of these and other aspects of the Prohibition era.
G.J. Meyer. The World Remade: America in World War I. New York: Bantam Books, 2016.
Every once in awhile one reads a book that shakes one’s ideas to the core. This has been such a book for me. I have, over the years, read a lot about World War I. But everything I read was about the war in Europe, or the war in European spheres of interest like the Middle East. This book focuses on what was happening in the US. The US did not formally commit to the war until April of 1917 (the war had begun in August 1914). It did not get involved in combat until almost a year later, and only in the fall of 1918 were US troops led by US generals engaged in serious offensives. It is likely that this late involvement had a decisive effect. Even more decisive, however, was the US’s financial and materiel support of the Allies (Britain and France, primarily), and Britain’s morally indefensible blockade of food (and of course military supplies) to Germany. The latter led to widespread deaths via starvation of civilians. The story as told by Meyer principally involves Woodrow Wilson. I had not known much about him before, though I had a vaguely positive image of him. After all, I had been a Woodrow Wilson Fellow in graduate school, and liked the work of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, to which I have occasionally given money. But the Wilson of Meyer’s depiction is incredible. He was a self-centered, idealistic man whose goal was to bring peace to the world by figuring out how to be at the center of whatever kind of peace process came at the end of this vicious war. He was stubborn, isolated, and inflexible. One reading is that after years of US propensity to stay out of the war, he finally realized that if he was to have a role in the peace, he would have to have the US involved in the defeat of Germany. And then he almost single handedly wrecked the Versailles peace process. His insistence on unwavering support for his idea of a League of Nations led Britain and France to negotiate for ever harsher terms for Germany and better deals for themselves. His continued unwavering support for the League of Nations in the form he wanted led to the US Congress rejecting US involvement in it. He was unable to negotiate, compromise, or work with others. It cost him politically and personally. He was also maniacal about those who opposed him on any grounds, and it lead to the gravest abuses of the Bill of Rights probably ever. All manner of innocent people were caught in the webs of his zealous minions who accused anyone who disagreed with Wilson of treason, with jailings or sometimes even worse. Interestingly, this climate also lead to the 18th Amendment and Prohibition, followed up with the repressive Volstead Act. It also, somewhat paradoxically, eased the way to women’s suffrage. Having only read this account of these events, I am motivated to look into other biographies of Wilson and other histories of what was going on in the US at this time. But I have to say, I have somewhat different feelings about my own past as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow.
Craig Nelson. Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness. New York: Scribner, 2016.
2016 marked the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. There has been a flurry of books and articles appearing as a result. Nelson’s book is just one of them, but it happens to be the one I picked up at a bookstore and read. Unlike earlier accounts, like Walter Lord’s famous Day of Infamy (1957), Nelson’s account (and I’m sure the others appearing as a result of the anniversary) had access to a rich array of archival material: diaries, government records, transcripts, notes, on both sides. As a result, we get a much more nuanced account of the whole event. There was enormous conflict on the Japanese side about whether to do this at all, and the fact that diplomacy was still in progress at the moment of the attack is symptomatic of both the conflict and the ineptitude on the Japanese side. Similarly, the fact that the US was caught unprepared was evidence of much conflict and ineptitude on that side. There were widespread doubts that the Japanese were capable of such a thing, a reflection of deep cultural biases among many in the military and the government. As a result, warnings based on intercepted cable traffic that such an attack was possible, those who could have done something ignored the warnings and made no preparations. The diaries and personal accounts of participants on both sides add a level of richness absent in earlier accounts. And, of course, in the end, Admiral Yamamoto’s fear — he planned the attack despite being deeply opposed to doing it — came true: it marked the beginning of the end of the imperialistic dreams of the militants who had gained control of the Japanese government.
Daniel Okrent. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner, 2010.
I learned long ago that it is usually valuable to read more than one book on a topic. I had earlier read the McGirr volume (reviewed above) on the Prohibition before I read Okrent’s account. The two books are very complementary. Okrent focuses much more on the vast array of characters who populated the “wet” and “dry” elements of the debates about Prohibition and its repeal. It’s a fascinating story. The circumstances that led to the perfect storm that created the 18th amendment, and the later perfect storm that led to its repeal, are told in page-turning detail. Okrent’s talent for making the rich array of characters interesting is admirable. To me, perhaps the most amazing aspect of the story is that despite all the crime and hypocrisy that accompanied Prohibition — even many of its supporters drinking freely, for example — the net result was a reduction in alcohol consumption. Even after repeal, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the pre-Prohibition levels of alcohol consumption were briefly matched, and even then fell off. And the Canadian Sam Bronfman, one of the most successful of the purveyors of illicit drink, said that there was only one explanation for what happened during Prohibition: “You people were thirsty.”
Lynne Olson. Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour. New York: Random House, 2010.
Lynne Olson has produced some of the best books about the war in Europe. You see reviews of others below, and more will be coming. This one focuses on the Americans who were in London during the war, both before and after the US involvement. There are three focal figures: Edward R. Murrow, the broadcaster for CBS radio who revolutionized news broadcasting (see the The Murrow Boys, above), Averell Harriman, who was assigned to England to administer the Roosevelt administration’s key Lend-Lease program (though he did a lot more than that), and John G. Winant, the US ambassador to England who became perhaps the most beloved US person by the British ever to serve in the UK. Many other figures appear in the story as well, but these three keep coming back. Having read The Murrow Boys, and having watched Murrow himself on TV in my youth, I knew a lot about his story. I had also read a biography of Harriman, a complex figure for sure, but he was familiar (although details emerged in Olson’s story that I didn’t know). But the figure who was new for me was Winant. He replaced Joseph Kennedy, the previous ambassador who was a staunch isolationist, and was extreme in his advocacy of keeping the US out of the war. Winant was the opposite. He began his tenure as ambassador in March of 1941, when England was in great peril. The fall of France in 1940, the Battle of Britain that followed, the Blitz, and the threat of invasion had left England on the doorstep of collapse. Yet when Winant arrived, he engaged the British people. During Nazi air attacks he wandered the streets of London, talking to ordinary people, encouraging them. He was remorseless in trying to get Roosevelt to engage, which was unsuccessful until Pearl Harbor. After the US became involved, he worked to smooth relations between the US troops arriving and the British populace. He became a close friend of Churchill, and other key British officials, especially Anthony Eden. He was honored and celebrated by the British, yet few Americans know of him. He committed suicide in 1947, lovesick for Sarah Churchill, with whom he had had a wartime affair, and frustrated at his lack of engagement in the Marshall Plan, the United Nations, and other postwar developments. That part of the story brought tears to my eyes. I’m sure a lot of this is due to Olson’s engaging writing style.
Lynne Olson. Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II. New York: Random House, 2013.
As the world turned once more to war, there was major debate in the US about whether we should get involved. As European nations fell, and the British were seriously threatened, President Roosevelt tried to convince Americans that it was our moral duty to support the British and perhaps even get formally involved in the conflict. However, there was serious pushback to this idea, triggered in part by widespread frustration that our involvement in World War I had in the long run not solved anything in Europe. The leading spokesperson for staying out of the new war was the aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. The resulting fight was anything but gentlemanly. Both sides used dubious methods to discredit the other. For instance, some in the military worked to undermine Roosevelt’s support of Britain. Roosevelt, in turn, authorized wiretaps of Lindbergh, spied on antiwar groups, tried to besmirch the reputations of antiwar congressman, and mounted serious efforts in the press to win over support for his policies. Lindbergh in turn was portrayed as a Nazi sympathizer. It was an ugly time, ended only when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the opposition to our involvement in the war dissipated. Lynne Olson portrays the characters and the often ugly actions in riveting detail.
Lynne Olson. Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood that Helped Turn the Tide of War. New York: Random House, 2017.
As country after country fell to the Nazis, their leadership fled to the as-yet-unoccupied England. Eventually, the leadership of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, France, Poland, and Czechoslovakia (actually, later Yugoslavia, but Olson does not cover that) ended up in the “last hope island.” Many military persons and civilians also fled to England. From the relative safety of England, they organized and monitored resistance movements in the occupied countries. They oversaw rescue networks for downed Allied flyers. They participated in military action. For instance, Polish pilots played a central role in the Battle of Britain and other later action. Forces from these countries played key roles in the invasions of North Africa, Italy, and on D-Day. While there were complicated relationships among these groups and the British government and intelligence services, much good came of the fact that there was organized long-distance oversight of activities in the occupied countries. And these relationships had much to do with the course of history after the war. The foundations for the European Union were formed, as was the British ambivalence toward being part of it. Olson covers an amazing array of activities and personalities involved in all of this. And, sadly, many international cruelties, such as the United States’ abandonment of Czechoslovakia during and after the war, are recounted. Leaders such as Churchill and Roosevelt had complex relationships with many of the figures who were in England, especially Charles de Gaulle. Though I have read a lot about World War II, this volume provided an essential perspective on important matters scarcely mentioned in most other histories.
Elaine Pagels. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation. New York: Viking, 2012.
The biblical book of Revelation is certainly one of the strangest and most controversial books in the Bible. Elaine Pagels’ research into the historical period in which it was written is itself full of surprising revelations. Her conclusion is that the book, seen in its historical context, is a satire about ongoing political events. It is similar to other texts from the same period also called “revelations.” Even as a biblical object, it has had a controversial history. For several centuries it was voted down for inclusion in the Bible, and even when it finally was approved, it was by a slim margin. And later religious leaders like Martin Luther wanted to get it out of the Bible. Pagels’ analysis is intriguing, and her recounting of the perennial controversy surrounding the book and its interpretation is gripping.
James Reston, Jr. The Conviction of Richard Nixon: The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews. New York: Harmony Books, 2007.
This slim volume (main text: 181 pages) tells the gripping story of the Frost/Nixon interviews that aired in 1977. Reston was one of the three primary background researchers for David Frost, and tells the story from his perspective. There were doubts about whether Frost would be up to the task of confronting Nixon. The background researchers armed him with an incredible array of material. But in the early phases of the interviews, touching on domestic and foreign matters, Nixon came across as holding the upper hand. When the interviews turned to Watergate, the background researchers said we’ve got to go for the jugular. There was a week’s delay before this phase of the interviews took place, and there was frenetic preparation, including a number of potential surprises for Nixon based on material gleaned from the White House tapes and other sources. And, indeed, it worked. The Watergate phase of these interviews are the most compelling, leading to Nixon making apologies — in his own somewhat indirect ways, of course. And since Nixon had been pardoned by Gerald Ford, this was the only time that he was actually called on to defend his behavior during these events. Reston’s descriptions are fascinating, down to off-camera moments where Nixon made odd comments to those involved in the tapings. I remember watching the original interviews (40 years ago!), and recently watched an edited selection of the Watergate phase of them. Having Reston’s report on what was going on as they were being made lends useful perspective to those amazing times.
David Reynolds. In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War. New York: Penguin, 2004.
This book has one of the more interesting constructions that I’ve ever encountered. It’s topic is Winston Churchill’s writing of his six-volume history of World War II, which became an international best-seller and led to Churchill earning the Nobel Prize in literature. It interleaves multiple stories. First, there is the history of the periods covered by the volumes, as they were known at the time and as Churchill experienced them. There is the writing of the six volumes, itself a massive enterprise that employed dozens of assistants. There is the censorship of the volumes, both by the authorities (e.g., keeping the code-breaking work at Bletchley Park secret) and by Churchill (not wanting to offend historic figures he worked with, and of course making his role heroic). There is the critical reaction to the volumes as they were published. And there is the current view of what happened, informed by numerous sources that have been revealed long after the volumes were written. It’s a complex narrative, but handled brilliantly by Reynolds. It is one of my all-time favorite books about World War II, because it weaves together the terrible struggles of that war with the process of constructing a narrative and the reactions to that effort over time.
Eugene Rogan. The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East. New York: Basic Books, 2015.
So much history of The Great War focuses on the European theaters, and the tragic consequences for European history triggered by the Versailles Treaty ending that war. But of great consequence for the present day is what happened in the Middle East, and what tragic implications for subsequent history the outcome of that war had for the 20th and now 21st centuries. Rogan’s volume covers the very different war that took place in the Middle East, leading to the ending of the centuries old Ottoman Empire. The carving up of Middle Eastern geography by the European powers has catalyzed the many tragic struggles that have swept this region ever since. The Fromkin volume reviewed above provides a nice companion to this book.
James M. Scott. Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid that Avenged Pearl Harbor. New York: W.W. Norton, 2015.
This book is like the one above about the Berlin Airlift (The Candy Bombers). It’s about an iconic historic moment that is usually remembered as a heroic endeavor by brave Americans. It is that, for sure. But reading this account embeds the event in its historic context, and it’s a much more complex, and therefore more interesting, story. For sure there are brave and heroic figures involved. But there are numerous tragic moments, such as the vicious revenge for the raid that was taken out on occupied China by the Japanese troops, the puzzling long-term imprisonment of the crew of the one bomber that landed in the Soviet Union, the ordeal of the two bomber crews that were captured by the Japanese, and the complex stories of those who eventually made it back to the US. There is the give-and-take of public stories about the raid, on both sides, with the actual facts about the raid eventually first disclosed by the Japanese rather than by the Americans, the latter who got tangled up in confusing principles of secrecy. This book is a good example of why most of my reading is about history — there is always much more going on in events than one realizes.
Philip Shenon. A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination. New York: Henry Holt, 2013.
For people of my age, the Kennedy assassination was the first of, sadly, a long series of traumatic national or international events. It totally broke us out of the complacencies of the 50s and the early fantasies of the 60s. Indeed, it was a harbinger of a turbulent decade. And few events have been surrounded by as many rumors and accusations. In this detailed book by Philip Shenon, the whole history of the event and its endless sequelae are reviewed in depth. The investigation that followed it, under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren, was deeply flawed. Warren himself prejudged the outcome at the beginning, and was little interested in following up leads. Many tantalizing threads were uninvestigated. Various agencies like the FBI and CIA had information that was never shared with the Warren Commission. Key evidence was destroyed. It’s a complex and sad story, and there is sufficient evidence that if information had been properly shared, the whole sorry affair might have been prevented. It’s a frustrating yet interesting story.
Nicholas Stargardt. The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945. New York: Basic Books, 2015.
This book looks at World War II from the perspective of ordinary German citizens. The outbreak of the war was very unpopular among most people, although the quick victories in Poland, France, and the early stages of the invasion of Russia gave some hope that the war might be over quickly. But it all changed, starting with serious losses on the eastern front and the beginning of bombing raids over Germany itself. And of course there was the moral issue of the campaigns against the Jews and other “undesirables.” Families with soldiers had to deal with their uncertain and often tragic fates. Stargardt draws on diaries, court records, and correspondence with soldiers to piece together a picture of what the ordinary people were going through. There was clear anti-semitism among the population, but the extent and magnitude of the extermination campaigns affected many people. It is a complicated story, and Stargardt tells it with rich detail and convincing humanity.
Ian W. Toll. Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012.
——. The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944. New York: W.W. Norton, 2015.
These are the first two volumes of a projected trilogy on the Pacific War. Other than the attack on Pearl Harbor, my knowledge of the Pacific war was quite sketchy until I read these two volumes. There is all kinds of drama, not just in the combat itself, initially at sea but then increasingly on the Pacific islands. There were leadership conflicts on both sides, as mistakes were made, lucky encounters influenced outcomes, and over such a vast arena, logistics played a huge role. As has happened with other accounts of World War II events, vast new archives have opened up, so that the historical drama can be traced in much more interesting detail. I eagerly await the third volume.
Volker Ullrich. Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
This is the first volume of a recent biography of Hitler (the original was published in Germany) that in part attempts to clarify, and often debunk, a variety of myths about this notorious leader. It focuses mostly on Hitler the person, but of course along the way we encounter all the terrible things he and his minions did. This volume covers the period up to the beginning of the War. The next volume will pick up the story with the invasion of Poland.