HM - Apr. 2014 - Wheelock
I am not endeavoring to select the greatest books ever written. Nor do I seek to identify the most important books in world history. Rather, I am choosing those books that have most impacted me personally. The range is eclectic—from civilization to history and from economics to biography and the power of myth. On occasion I select a single book by an author whose works I find unforgettable. My best indicator is the number of times I have reflected on and/or re-read these books. My intention is to describe why specific books have been my long-time friends. These are in no particular order:
- History of the World (J. M. Roberts)
- The Times Atlas of World History
- The Power of Myth (Joseph Campbell)
- A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Karen Armstrong)
- Civilisation (Kenneth Clark)
- The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself (Daniel Boorstin)
- The March of Folly from Troy to Vietnam (Barbara Tuchman)
- Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May to September 1787 (Catherine Drinker Bowen)
- First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power (Warren Zimmermann)
- Presidential Style: Some Giants and a Pygmy in the White House (Samuel & Dorothy Rosenman)
- Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945; Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974; and Restless Giant: The United States From Watergate to Bush V. Gore (David Kennedy & James Patterson)
- George C. Marshall: Education of a General 1880- 1939; Ordeal and Hope 1939-1942; Organizer of Victory 1943-1945; Statesman 1945-1959 (Forrest Pogue)
- Cold War: An Illustrated History 1945-1991 (Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing)
- Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (William Taubman)
- The Commanding Heights: The Battle Between Government and the Marketplace that is Remaking the Modern World (Daniel Yergin & Joseph Stanislaw)
- The Origin: A Biographical Novel of Charles Darwin (Irving Stone)
- Brave Companions: Portraits in History (David McCullough)
1. History of the World by J. M. Roberts. Professor Roberts’ first edition was published in 1976. His final edition, with 200 pages more than his first, was issued in 2002, a year before his death. I first encountered Roberts’ world history in the 1980s. I was astounded that a writer with strong European roots could be so insightful and even-handed in dealing with non-European civilizations. I have reread Roberts perhaps half a dozen times, gleaning bold new insights each time. I delight in his ability to synthesize. For one who struggled through a course in ancient Egyptian history, I finally, thanks to Roberts, understood why I found it so sterile.[Because we are used to change we must find it difficult to sense the huge inertia possessed by any successful social system….As for intellectual stimuli, these could hardly be strong in a society where the whole apparatus of a cultural tradition was directed to the inculcation of routine….What they thought necessary for the real business of living: the proper preparation for death.] (Top)
2. The Times Atlas of World History (recently renamed The Times Complete History of the World). My favorite history atlas is the venerable Times Atlas of World History. Originally conceived and edited by Geoffrey Barraclough, the format and, especially, the historical vignettes are outstanding. Numerous historical periods are presented in a two-page format with excellent graphics and succinct narratives. My well-thumbed copy of Barraclough’s second edition has provided me many hours of joy, as I frequently revisit periods of spur-of-the-moment interest. I have just received the newest edition, edited by Professor Richard Overy, which includes enhanced graphics and coverage of the last thirty years. I expect that I shall continue first to reach for my Barraclough masterpiece.
Geography is the Rosetta Stone for much of history. Sadly, it is excluded from most curricula today. I was fortunate, as a junior at Yale, to take a graduate geography course. Dr. Karl Pelzer infused me with a life-long fascination for geography and supervised my graduate thesis on the Nile valley. In graduate school I spent a course year engaged in a chapter-by-chapter analysis of Woytinsky & Woytinsky’s massive World Population and Production: Trends and Outlook and World Commerce and Governments: Trends and Outlook.
This intensified my interest in economic geography. My geography library includes:
Kenneth C. Davis’ Don’t Know Much about Geography: Everything You Need to Know about the World but You Never Learned is a basic introduction to geography. I am fascinated by what we know about the world from the various stages of cartography.
Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations by Vincent Virga and The Library of Congress is a highly professional study of the evolution of cartography.
Peter Whitfield’s The Image of the World: 20 Centuries of World Maps is a marvelously illustrated and annotated collection of maps from the time of Ptolemy to present day.
Jeremy Black’s Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past provides a first-rate narrative with relatively few illustrations.
I appreciative imaginative approaches to map graphics. This is most obvious in Gerard Chaliand’s and Jean-Pierre Rageau’s Strategic Atlas: A Comparative Geopolitics of the World’s Powers. They present the world as viewed from North America, the Soviet Union, from Europe, from China, and from the Arab Muslim view. (I am reminded of The King & I in which Siam is portrayed as the center of the world.) They also have imaginative projections related to recent wars, raw materials, and historical situations.
Michael Kidron and Ronald Segal’s The New State of the World Atlas presents the environment, society, natural resources, the economy, and much more in an easily-comprehended visual manner.
For me the National Geographic Atlas of the World, with its recent additions on such topics as the universe, climate, the ocean’s crust, and world resources, remains my standard world atlas.
The Dorling Kindersley Concise Atlas of the World is a worthy competitor, but it lacks the National Geographic’s cartographic detail.
For America history, my favorite is Mark Carnes’ and John Garraty’s Mapping America’s Past: A Historical Atlas.
For a geographic perspective on American history, nothing comes close to D. W. Meining’s four-volume The Shaping of America.
I find a world history atlas indispensable. The Rand McNally Atlas of World History is adequate for those seeking a concise overview. DK Atlas of World History: Mapping the Journey by Jeremy Black (editor) is a far more ambitious publication. Cutting edge graphics together with Professor Black’s creative mind have combined to produce a graphically dazzling story of world history. I find it both fun and informative to glance through the world view and regional sections. For me nothing matches The Times Atlas of World History. (Top)
3. The Power of Myth. I became a Joseph Campbell devotee when I viewed and re-viewed his PBS Power of Myth series with Bill Moyers and then bought the book. I was captivated by Campbell’s ability to relate universal mythology into our daily lives. His follow your bliss became my personal mantra. At one time I endeavored to read The Hero With a Thousand Faces. I abandoned it before the third chapter. I more easily related to The Power of Myth’s Chapter V, The Hero’s Adventure, in which Campbell synthesized his message in a personal manner with which I could connect. I have purchased various videos and books in which Campbell expands on The Power of Myth. He provides a universality that helps me make sense of the past and the present. I still recall, in the PBS series, Bill Moyers' (an ordained Baptist minister) expression when Campbell described the ascension of Jesus Christ as an allegory. Campbell identifies global allegories in many of his mythological stories. (Top)
4. A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong. Religion is a challenge for historians. Much has been written about faith, miracles, and when the Bible was written and by whom. The Koran is being subjected to similar recent scrutiny. The Axial Period raises a broader range of ‘god’-related questions. I have found it instructive to explore what we know about how ‘god’ was first historically reflected in human nature and how this evolved in the ancient world. Ms. Armstrong, a former nun, is a prolific and highly regarded religious scholar. After years writing on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, she recently focused on the Axial Period (The Great Transformation: The Beginnings of Our Religious Traditions). Though I relish her later books, my personal favorite remains A History of God (1993).
Anthropologists found the first evidence of human reverence to a ‘god’ in burial pits around 30,000 BCE. Subsequently, there were statues to fertility, a god of agriculture, and other “metaphysical attempts to describe a reality that was too complex and elusive to express in any other way.” Starting with Abraham, Armstrong traced the evolution of major Middle Eastern religions. She described how the Jewish religion adopted monotheism in about 700 BCE. She also explained how the Holy Trinity was negotiated in the fourth century and why it was not universally accepted. She believed that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worshipped the same god.
In her view “there is no one unchanging idea contained in the word ‘God’; instead the word contains a whole spectrum of meanings, some of which are contradictory or even mutually exclusive. Had the notion of God not had this flexibility, it would not have survived to become one of the great human ideas.”
Persons with inflexible religious beliefs will find Armstrong’s historical narrative troubling. Personally I find it an essential Baedeker to how time and people have altered the role of god in religions as they have evolved over the centuries. (Top)
5. Civilisation by Kenneth (later Lord) Clark. I was first captivated by the 1969 PBS Civilisation series. Much later I bought the video and the book, which is the text of Clark’s TV series. I found Civilisation masterful. Clark spoke with erudite arrogance, which was fully justified by his mastery of art, literature, architecture, and music from the 6th century up to the early 20th century. His dislikes were clear: economics and modern art. Clark took me on a journey of the evolution of Western civilization from the dark centuries after the fall of Rome through various stages reflected especially in art. His conversational tour of the places, personalities, and culture that marked the various plateaus of Western civilization is something I re-experience every two years from re-listening to his magnificent TV series and re-reading his narrative. I cannot imagine a more pleasurable manner in which to experience the emergence of post-Greek/Roman Western civilization. Those who wish to explore non-Western civilizations must look elsewhere. (Top)
6. The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself by Daniel Boorstin. The Discoverers is part of a trilogy (The Creators & The Seekers). I consider The Discoverers the best of the three. Boorstin was a prolific writer. I first read his The Americans trilogy, one of which won a Pulitzer Prize. His The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America is topical for present-day America. I found The Discoverers a highly readable journey through the obstacles and the breakthroughs of the world’s major scientific discoveries. He ranges from time and the earth’s geography to early explorations and the importance of oceans. In science Boorstin brought to life how many of the scientific discoveries evolved. I was especially captivated by his chapter on Darwin, the predecessors who paved the path to Darwin’s ‘natural selection,’ and the Luddites who sought to stifle Darwin. Every rereading of The Discoverers heightens my appreciation for and understanding of the process of scientific discovery and eventual acceptance. (Top)
7. The March of Folly from Troy to Vietnam by Barbara Tuchman. Ms. Tuchman, a journalist turned historian, combined both talents in riveting stories with profound insights. [Who can forget, in A Distant Mirror, her illustrating peasant discontent, by describing how peasants took over the lord’s manor, roasted him over a spit, and then obliged his family to eat daddy?] In The Zimmermann Telegram she described how the British leveraged an intercepted message into Wilson’s decision to enter World War I. In Stillwell and the American Experience in China Tuchman made clear that China was not America’s to ‘lose.’ The Guns of August described the absurdities that evolved into World War I.
Her fondness for the absurd resulted in The March of Folly, which is her compendium of some of the more wrong-headed events in history. Her front piece is from Joseph Campbell: And I can see no reason why anyone should suppose that in the future the same motifs already heard will not be sounding still…put to use by reasonable men to reasonable ends, or by madmen to nonsense and disaster. She chided the Trojans for their wooden horse folly. On the unchaste Renaissance popes, Tuchman described why the Protestant secession was inevitable. The British in colonial America failed to pursue their vital interests. As for Vietnam, Tuchman saw this as a Shakespearean or Greek tragedy. If Tuchman had not died in 1997, she certainly would have added a chapter on the Cheney/Rumsfeld Iraq folly. (Top)
8. Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May to September 1787 by Catherine Drinker Bowen. I continually return to Bowen’s miracle because, hundreds of years later, this remains a page turner on how men could compromise on the most fundamental issues in order to achieve a common good. The United States was created by such grand compromises. Americans today who consider ‘compromise’ a dirty word should read Bowen’s account of how the founding Fathers compromised to save a nation. Ms. Bowen was an accomplished violinist who decided to become a writer, despite no formal writing or academic training. Initially she wrote about musicians. Then she turned to prominent legal giants: Yankee from Olympus: Justice Holmes and his Family and The Lion and the Throne: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke.
For me her masterpiece was The Miracle at Philadelphia. Long before the avalanche of books on our Founding Fathers, Ms. Bowen described, in exquisite detail, how the greatest functioning political document in history emerged. It seemed a long-odds possibility. The United States of America were floundering under the Articles of Confederation. The country was laden with massive debt and scant revenues. The chasm between the North and South and the large versus small states was vast.
What Bowen examined on a day-by-day basis were the series of compromises that were hammered out by practical and desperate men. There was the ‘great compromise’ and others of equal magnitude. Most of the attendees realized that the survival of their new country was at stake. Technically, what they were undertaking was illegal and only George Washington could provide the political legerdemain to oblige Congress to accept the draft constitution. (Top)
9. First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power by Warren Zimmermann. For me Zimmermann provides a paradigm that can be applied to a diversity of American foreign affairs situations. The triumvirate of Wilson, Lansing, and House come to mind. If Zimmermann hadn’t died in 2004, I am certain that he would have addressed the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Bush cabal as it affected U. S. foreign policy in Iraq and elsewhere.
I knew Zimmermann from an early age. He was a scholar, an athlete, ethical, a gentleman—all the qualities required for an East Coast candidate for the Foreign Service. At Yale, Zimmermann wrote an expansive article on American Students for International Understanding, a group I had founded. Zimmermann was slated to replace me as director of AMSTU, until a family tragedy intervened.
In subsequent years I lost track of Zimmermann. He entered the Foreign Service soon after me and took a different career track. I was surprised to learn, while he was ambassador to fast-deteriorating Yugoslavia (1988-1992), that he became an outspoken critic of President Clinton’s ‘wait and see’ policy towards Serbia, as the country dissolved. His anger at the massive killings put him in conflict with official Washington. I sensed that Zimmermann’s strong ethical values were trumping his inherent gentlemanly qualities. Zimmermann resigned from the Foreign Service in protest at Clinton’s reluctance and then taught at John Hopkins University and Columbia University.
His first book, The Origins of a Catastrophe, was his account of a ‘failed U. S. policy.’ His First Great Triumph was a masterpiece that ranks among the finest books on how U. S. foreign policy can spring from a few men who form a juggernaut of focus and power. I am certain that his conceptual approach was influenced by Walter Isaacson’s and Evan Thomas’s The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (Robert Lovett, John McCloy, Averell Harriman, Charles Bohlen, George Kennan, and Dean Acheson). He was also influenced by David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914.
Ambassador Zimmermann wrote me that “working on this book was the most fun five years that I’ve ever spent.” Zimmermann crafted his account of the ‘rising American empire’ around expansive biographic vignettes on the five key players: John Hay, Alfred T. Mahan, Elihu Root, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Theodore Roosevelt. Luck and circumstance played a major role in the evolution of this cabal. Henry Cabot Lodge, later Woodrow Wilson’s bête noir, was critical to the trajectory of Roosevelt’s career. Elihu Root, brilliant and irreverent, served Roosevelt well in key junctures. Mahan provided an ideology, though he wasn’t an inner member of this cabal. A dalliance by one cabal member with the wife of another did not break a common bond. Zimmermann’s carefully constructed human mosaic renders both obvious and inevitable what subsequently transpired. This is history at its best—just as in Watergate ‘follow the money’ was key, in this saga ‘follow the five people’ foretold the outcome. (Top)
10. Presidential Style: Some Giants and a Pygmy in the White House by Samuel and Dorothy Rosenman. I have read extensively on both Roosevelts, Wilson, and Truman. When I was teaching their periods for over 20 years, I would invariably reread the Rosenmans’ marvelous vignettes, which provided me the essence of each presidency. I regret that there are no modern-day Rosenmans who can assess recent presidents with such scholarship, insight, and acumen.
Samuel Rosenman was a lawyer, a judge, a prominent Democratic personality, a state legislator, and the confidant of presidents Roosevelt and Truman. Rosenman was the first White House Counsel, with Roosevelt and then with Truman. (His successor under Truman was Clark Clifford.) He was in the ‘inner inner circle’ of Roosevelt advisers in Albany and Washington. I believe that Roosevelt, famous for his deviousness, was generally above board with Rosenman and relied heavily on Rosenman’s savvy advice and speech writing abilities. Rosenman clearly was linked at the hip with FDR. His book Working With Roosevelt is a marvelous insider’s account of the Roosevelt years. His thirteen volumes of edited The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt is a treasure trove for Roosevelt scholars. Still, Rosenman retained his independence while working with FDR.
During the Roosevelt years, Rosenman returned to New York and became a member of the New York Supreme Court from 1936 to 1943, a position he resigned in order to serve Roosevelt full time during FDR’s final two years. I was struck by how Rosenman responded, when Roosevelt, during his 1936 re-election campaign, asked Rosenman how, in a forthcoming speech in Pittsburgh, he should handle his 1932 Pittsburgh statement that he favored a balanced budget. Three days later Rosenman returned with his answer: ’Deny you ever said it.’
Presidential Style was clearly meant to be Rosenman’s magnus opus, drawing on what he had experienced from his years in the White House cockpit of power. He selected Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Warren G. Harding (the pygmy) for this presidential tapestry. He died before the book’s completion. His wife and fellow researcher, Dorothy Rosenman, admirably completed this task. James MacGregor Burns wrote in his introduction “One of the several major contributions of Samuel and Dorothy Rosenman’s book is to bring direct experience, historical understanding, and a fine contemporary judgment to bear on the workings of this uniquely American institution in the twentieth century.” (Top)
11. Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 by David M. Kennedy; and Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 and Restless Giant: The United States From Watergate to Bush V. Gore by James T. Patterson. All three outstanding! Only an intrepid (or foolish) historian would dare write definitely about recent history. I recall Chou en Lai’s response when, in 1972, President Nixon asked his opinion on the impact of the French revolution: “It is too early to tell.” In fact, according to Nixon’s interpreter, Chou en Lai was referring to the late 1960s Paris evenements, but why permit facts to spoil a good story? [For more ‘fact spoilers,’ see W. Joseph Campbell’s Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Great Misreported Stories in American Journalism.]
I lived through many of the events described in Freedom From Fear and taught this period in college for over 20 years. I found my opinions and understandings changing with new facts and analysis, as well as my maturing personal perceptions. The challenge of synthesizing this roller-coaster time in American history is daunting. Professor Kennedy, a seasoned historian, well deserved his Pulitzer Prize for this richly marbled account.
He focused on two major events: the Great Depression/New Deal and World War II. I was heartened that Kennedy was kinder to President Herbert Hoover than was Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Kennedy admired FDR’s improvisations, without glorifying his actions or devious nature. Economists are still endeavoring to identify the core triggers of the Great Depression. Historians are still debating the New Deal. Some are outspoken critics. [FDR’s Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression by Jim Powell and The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, edited by Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle.] Kennedy described the social, economic, and political aspects of the New Deal and Second New Deal, utilizing Lorena Hickok’s chilling reports from the hinterlands. Kennedy concludes: "The New Deal gave to countless Americans who had never had much of it a sense of security and with it a sense of having a stake in their country. And it did it all without shredding the American Constitution or sundering the American people. At a time when despair and alienation were prostrating other peoples under the heel of dictatorship, that was no small accomplishment".
I found Kennedy more precise in his account of events leading up to World War II and the actual war. He gives high marks to FDR for seeking a more international approach in a country with strong isolationist sentiments. Kennedy applauded Roosevelt’s gamble to stand by Great Britain, when his closest advisors counseled to the contrary. The United States because the ‘arsenal of democracy.’ Massive mobilization and production provided a turning point in the war primarily against Nazi Germany and, secondarily, against Japan. Kennedy acknowledged that Roosevelt could better handle Churchill than Stalin during the war years. England was a declining power, while Soviet troops bore the overwhelming proportion of Allied casualties. For Kennedy, the Yalta agreements were the best that FDR could obtain, rather than being a ‘sell out’ to Stalin. Kennedy threw a wet blanket on those who glorify the ‘greatest generation.’ He detailed both the triumphs and the dark side of our fighting men.
On balance, I find Kennedy’s coverage of World War II superb. Whenever I taught the New Deal and World War II, I replied most heavily on Freedom From Fear, which I found substantially in agreement with Frank Friedel’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny.
Chronicling a period that commenced with the United States victorious after World War II and having 45% of the world’s annual GDP and concluded with economic recessions and Watergate is a daunting task. Professor James Patterson, a distinguished historian was up to the challenge. Grand Expectations won the 1997 Bancroft Prize in American History. This 829 page book is best suited to history buffs who are reasonably knowledgeable about the period addressed. Some will cavil at Patterson’s sweeping thematic approach as well as his audacious historical short hand. I was delighted with his bold handling of many complex situations.
I found irony in his title ‘grand expectations.’ Instead of a straight-line theme, I found his grand expectations oscillating. The exuberance of World War II victory was swiftly extinguished by the transition pains of demobilizing ten million soldiers, the short-term problems of eliminating wartime rationing, and the anger of a cash-rich population clamoring for consumer goods. Patterson described the helplessness of new president Truman, as he sought to contain this post-war tsunami. Truman sought to initiate the next chapter of a New Deal, which a conservative Democratic Congress rejected. A ‘to err is Truman’ mood led to the 1946 Republican takeover of Congress.
Patterson documented how this plucky man from Missouri confounded the experts by winning re-election in 1948. Despite a Democratic Congress, Truman’s post-New Deal agenda proved a nonstarter. Patterson documents the McCarthy witch hunt and Ike’s triumphal 1952 election and 1956 re-election. Against a backdrop of all of the social turmoil that was bubbling during this period, Ike’s conservative ‘peace and prosperity’ remained on center stage. Brown v. Board of Education put the Supreme Court in conflict with Ike’s conservative principles. Meanwhile, the economy was flourishing. Patterson seemed not to buy into the Kennedy image. Despite the Camelot imagery, Patterson concluded that "Kennedy had aroused liberal expectations but had failed to overcome the long-entrenched power of the conservative coalition in Congress. New frontiers still stood in the distance".
Regarding Johnson, I feel that Patterson captured LBJ’s raw power in launching a legislative blitz, though Patterson might have more specifically emphasized the difficulties of implementing such grandiose plans. Patterson eloquently described LBJ’s decline from his overwhelming 1964 re-election to his March, 1968 speech that he would not run for re-election in 1968. Patterson criticized Johnson for overselling of his programs, concluding that "the liberal faith of Johnson in the 1960s was both attractive and well-meaning, but it was destined for serious trouble ahead".
Nixon and his ‘silent majority’ won a razor-thin majority in 1968 and a resounding re-election in 1972, before the death knell of Watergate. Nixon, who cared little for domestic affairs, found political advantage in supporting much of the liberal legislation initiated in a Democratic Congress. Though some groups found the 1960s exciting and liberating, Patterson countered this view with quotes from Daniel Bell (”the ‘counterculture,’ produced little culture and it countered nothing”) and George Will, who dismissed the decade as an age of “intellectual rubbish,” “sandbox radicalism,” and “almost unrelieved excess.”
Upon Nixon’s departure, Patterson observed that "the sluggishness of the economy widened the gulf between grand expectations and the real limits of progress, undercutting the all-important sense that the country had the means to do almost anything, and exacerbating the contentiousness that had been rending American society since the late 1960s. This was the final irony of the exciting and extraordinary expectant thirty years following World War II".
Foreign affairs, during 1945 to 1974 were marked by the Cold War, the emergence of polycentric communism, and a truculent Third World. Patterson gave Truman high marks for his Cold War leadership, after a wobbly start and, later, the Korean War. With Marshall and then Dean Acheson, there was a firm policy of containment. Though America didn’t ‘lose’ China, the Republicans portrayed Truman as weak in dealing with the communists. Ike, as president, maintained firm control on the military and employed the nuclear threat various times, but with no intention of launching nuclear bombs. Patterson gave Ike credit for avoiding a hot war during his eight years.
Patterson did not believe that President Kennedy grew much in his management of foreign affairs. Nor did he believe that JFK had any intention of disengaging from Vietnam. I was surprised that Patterson made no mention of JFK’s June, 1963 American University speech which I, and others, thought reflected a more mature post-Cuban Missile Crisis approach to dealing with the Soviets.
Patterson had scant admiration for President Johnson’s foreign affairs style (Johnson told his National Security Council advisers that Vietnam “is just like the Alamo.”) Patterson ascribed Johnson’s relentless build up in Vietnam to Johnson hubris, his belief that he could bomb Ho chi Minh into an acceptable peace agreement, and military myopia. The administration’s lack of credibility on Vietnam rendered any claim of Tet victory unbelievable. Ultimately Vietnam was a Johnson Greek tragedy that toppled his presidency.
Patterson was more generous in assessing President Nixon’s foreign policies than am I. In Vietnam, for political reasons Nixon prolonged the war for four additional years, at the cost of another 20,000 Americans and perhaps one million more Vietnamese dead. His opening to China, while secretly masterminded, was really an acknowledgement of an accommodation desired by Mao Zedong. While Nixon and Kissinger (whose personal relationship is unflatteringly described in William Bundy’s A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency) considered themselves brilliant strategists, I believe that Patterson did not sufficiently examine the long-term implications of their often ‘secret diplomacy.’
Professor Patterson followed Grand Expectations with Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush V. Gore, published only five years after Bush v. Gore. It has received high praise and considerable criticism, which I find understandable, since the period discussed is so recent.
Personally, I consider the book a tour de force. I applaud both the tone and substance of Patterson’s book. He provided an excellent social and economic backdrop for the political ups and downs from Ford through Clinton. I agree with many of Patterson’s personal judgments, though I would have been more positive on Ford’s presidency. Reagan remains ‘unknowable,’ perhaps even to his wife. Despite his ‘voodoo economics,’ his sustained support for Paul Volcker’s tight money policy led, after a sharp drop in Reagan’s popularity, to an economy that flourished through much of the 1980s and 1990s. In retrospect, concern with Reagan’s massive U. S. debt increase seems less justified.
In foreign affairs, Reagan was involved in some stutter steps and, later, the Iran-Contra morass. His triumph was the Reagan-Gorbachev nexus that triggered the winding down of the Cold War. Patterson was astute in not ascribing final credit to who was most responsible for this outcome. What was of overriding importance was that the Cold War was ending. I agree with Patterson’s assessment that George H. W. Bush was a decent and cautious man who served his country well, especially in foreign affairs.
Patterson recorded in considerable detail the gyrations of the Clinton presidency. That Clinton lacked a clear, sustained focus was undeniable. The ‘Come Back Kid’ survived his many scandals in great part because the economy was booming. In foreign affairs, Clinton also had a mixed record. Patterson concludes with the election of 2000. Much is still being written about Bush v. Gore. I believe that Patterson handled this controversy judiciously.
Freedom From Fear, Grand Expectations, and Restless Giant chronologically are the last volumes in The Oxford History of the United States series. That David Kennedy, author of Freedom From Fear, became the series general editor during the writing of Restless Giant provided a substantive continuity to the volumes covering 1929 to 2000. I applaud professors Kennedy and Patterson for making sense of this period’s social, economic, and political history in such a readable manner. (Top)
12. George C. Marshall: Education of a General 1880-1939; Ordeal and Hope 1939-1942; Organizer of Victory 1943-1945; Statesman 1945-1959 by Forrest Pogue.
I consider George Marshall the greatest American of the 20th century for his accomplishments and personal character. I am dismayed that few of this generation have any knowledge of a man who once was the most respected American. In 1989 Professor Mark Stoler, an editor of the Marshall papers, wrote George C. Marshall: Soldier-Statesman of the American Century, which is a concise overview of Marshall’s life and career. George Marshall and the American Century, an 88-minute 1994 documentary in which Professor Forrest Pogue is a major participant, provided excellent insights into the man and his many accomplishments.
The unquestioned primary source on George C. Marshall are Professor Pogue‘s monumental four volumes, that required 30 years, the review of 3.5 million pages of material, interviews with over 300 of Marshall’s colleagues, and 40 hours of recorded interviews with General Marshall (just years before Marshall’s death). Pogue, despite being a highly-regarded Army oral historian before becoming Executive Director of the George C. Marshall Research Foundation, had a difficult time obtaining Marshall’s approval for this expansive biography. Marshall was an extremely private and formal person. Despite lucrative publisher offers, he constantly refused to benefit personally from his government service. He felt that this was improper. He didn’t permit others to call him George. President Roosevelt addressed General Marshall as George—once. Finally Marshall succumbed to Pogue’s persistence and engaged in lengthy sessions of highly detailed personal and professional remembrances. The result is a definitive biography that matches the content excellence of any biography I have ever read.
Marshall did not have an extraordinary early childhood. When he sought to attend the Virginia Military Institute, his parents were concerned that he wouldn’t live up to the standards set by his older brother, a VMI graduate. The competitive younger brother was named VMI first cadet in his final year. Marshall found his profession at VMI. He loved the life and the discipline. Nonetheless, he risked dismissal, when he snuck out many evenings to court his soon-to-be wife. Marshall had a fairly ordinary early peacetime army career. After being stuck as first lieutenant for eight years, he considered resigning from the army. World War I provided him an opportunity to display his military skills. Though he yearned for a field campaign, as General Pershing’s operations and training aide, Marshall distinguished himself by the extraordinary feat of withdrawing 250,000 French soldiers from the frontlines and then replacing them with 600,000 American troops and equipment in secret.
Post-WW I Marshall served four years as aide to Army Chief of Staff Pershing. In the peacetime army he was reduced in rank to major in 1920 and was not promoted to lt. colonel until 1933. Marshall’s most significant responsibility came during his years at Fort Benning, where he revised the Army’s training and strategy manuals and mentored officers who would be vital in World War II. His biggest disappointment was being appointed senior instructor of the Illinois National Guard. Soon after he was brought back to Washington as Army Deputy Chief of Staff, he was named Army Chief of Staff with the rank of general.
He inherited an ill-trained and understaffed army (ranked 17th in the world). Supporting a Selective Service Act, he swiftly raised the size of the army multifold. When re-enactment of this one year law was threatened in Congress, Marshall’s personal competence and integrity resulted in the bill being passed by a single vote. Marshall was widely heralded for ‘organizing victory.’ He increased the army from less than 200,000 to over eight million. He pressed his grand strategy to focus on defeating Germany before Japan. He also was the only general to whom Prime Minister Churchill often showed deference. When Churchill was insisting on invading the island of Rhodes, Marshall responded: “I’ll tell you this. No American boy will die on that God damned island.”
General Marshall desperately wanted to command the European invasion force. Secretary of War Stimson told him to ask FDR for this role. Instead, Marshall demurred, when Roosevelt told him that ‘he wouldn’t be able to sleep at night, were Marshall not in Washington.’Thus Ike got the job. Historians unanimously agree that Marshall was critical to the winning of the war. He did this with extraordinary sense of duty, efficiency (famous for his insistence on one-page memos), and without taking a day off during World War II.
He was exhausted and stepped down from his post on November 19, 1945. His retirement was abruptly ended, when President Truman called and asked him to go to China. As a loyal soldier, he agreed and spent thirteen months trying to strengthen out the Chinese morass. Then Truman asked Marshall to be Secretary of State (it is reported that he wept, but accepted), a position he occupied from January 1947 to January 1949. By then the Cold War was heating up. Marshall was greatly concerned about the future of Western Europe and the troubles that Stalin was causing. Also, Western Europe was economically destitute, after the worst winter in 50 years. Marshall attended a foreign ministers conference in Moscow, where he met with Stalin, his war-time ally. Now he found Stalin evasive. Returning home by way of Western Europe, he told George Kennan to prepare a grand plan for the economic rescue of Europe.
What he launched at a Harvard commencement speech became the European Economic Recovery Act (“The Marshall Plan”). At the outset, the prospects that the Republican Congress would approve the $13 billion European recovery plan seemed slim. Marshall campaigned throughout the country selling this plan. Also, Congress, despite Republican anger at President Truman, greatly respected Marshall’s competence and integrity. The Marshall Plan was approved and the swift recovery of Western Europe commenced.
Marshall had always displayed great respect for American presidents whom he considered the ultimate decision maker. Thus, his reaction to the possibility of recognizing the State of Israel was extraordinary. After Clark Clifford spent 20 minutes in President Truman’s office describing the political reasons to recognize Israel (rather than pressing for some sort of UN trusteeship), a red-faced Marshall declared: “If you follow the recommendation that Clifford has made, I will be unable to vote for you in the presidential election.” This meeting ended abruptly and there was some concern that Secretary of State Marshall might resign. He didn’t, explaining “It never entered my mind. When the president makes a decision, it would become a decision of this government. The matter is over.”
Exhausted, Marshall was succeeded as Secretary of State by Dean Acheson in January, 1949. Less than two years later, Truman again called Marshall: the Korean War was going badly, and Truman needed Marshall as Secretary of Defense. Marshall, after resigning as president of the American Red Cross, found the army ill-trained and understaffed. He swiftly moved once again to upgrade the army. He also recommended the firing of General MacArthur. His final retirement from government occurred in September, 1951. By then Senator Joe McCarthy was engaged in his communist witch hunt. He, and a number of Republicans, thought that they could obtain the presidency in 1952 by attacking Marshall. To Eisenhower’s later chagrin, he did nothing publicly to defend the man who had done so much support Eisenhower during critical moments of his career. Always a gentleman, Marshall refused to comment on these attacks.
In 1953 George Marshall was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for The Marshall Plan—an extraordinary honor, especially for a general. In his acceptance speech, Marshall said “There has been considerable comment over the awarding of a Nobel Peace Prize to a soldier. I am afraid this does not seem quite soremarkable to me as it quite evidently appears to others….The cost of war is constantly spread before me, written neatly in many ledgers whose columns are gravestones. I am greatly moved to find some means or method of avoiding another calamity of war.” Some think that Marshall could have been elected president, if he so wished. He clearly did not. His life was dedicated to serving his country as soldier and then as statesman. Marshall described his personal code: "The most important factor of all is character, which involves integrity, unselfish and devoted purpose, a sturdiness of bearing when everything goes wrong and all are critical, and a willingness to sacrifice self in the interest of the common good". He adhered to this code and, in my opinion, is the greatest American of the 20th century. (Top)
13. Cold War: An Illustrated History 1945-1991 by Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing (companion to the CNN TV series). As someone who had experienced the Cold War, I continually learn from this book and videos. For old timers as well as Cold War neophytes, I have found no better source from which to understand the Cold War. I was surprised, in 1997, when one of my brightest students said that I had used a phrase with which she was not familiar: “Cold War.” Huh, how could any teenager not know of the Cold War? There are thousands of books about aspects of the Cold War (and the ‘Second Cold War’).
How could I help my students to understand the seminal foreign conflict of my lifetime? There are many great sources on the Cold War. For neophytes one of the best is The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Cold War. But how could I get my students to feel what I had experienced during the Cold War years? I found this in the Cold War book and 24-part TV series by Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing. This was not some highfalutin scholarly analysis. Rather, it was a series of specific accounts related to diverse aspects of the Cold War. All of the individuals had been participants in these events, rather than second-hand ‘talking heads.’
Readers and viewers could experience the complexity of each event, whether it was the creation of the Iron Curtain, the Marshall Plan, Berlin, Cuba (Bay of Pigs and Missile Crisis), Vietnam, or whatever. One could experience first-hand the détente, the ‘freeze,’ and the roles of Reagan and Gorbachev. The unraveling of the Soviet’s East European empire was presented in a manner that underscored what Machiavelli had written centuries earlier: ‘it is virtually impossible to long control a people that had experienced liberty.’ The ‘ending’ segment documented how this war oozed to an end. Why had it continued for so long? Readers (and viewers) can long ponder this question. (Top)
14. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era by William Taubman. For keen insight into the Stalinist period and, especially, the post-Stalinist period to October, 1964, Taubman’s definitive Khrushchev is my unrivaled source. It is extremely difficult for outsiders, including historians, to penetrate a ‘closed society’ such as the Soviet Union or China. Much of what transpires is hidden from foreigners as well as from much of the local population. There have been excellent studies that have corrected faulty history. On occasion, on-the-spot reporting has been proved to have been deliberately falsified:
John Lewis Gaddis, in We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, points out how Westerners were deluded as to the nature of the Potemkin-like economy (and military) of the Soviet Union. He underscores how Western interpretation of North Korea’s invasion of South Korea was totally misunderstood by the United States. Rather than being a calculated aggressive move by Stalin, it was approved with reluctance by Stalin and Mao, only after Kim Il Sung promised that he could conquer South Korea in three days.
In China, the full facts of a Mao-triggered famine that claimed 30 million lives were not known to the world under many years later [Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine by Jasper Becker].
That perhaps 100 million persons died under communist rule was not known by the world until The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression by Stephane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, and other French scholars.
Often Westerners relied on journalists to provide glimpses within these ‘closed societies.’ For almost 20 years Walter Duranty was the New York Time’s man in Moscow. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting. In fact, Mr. Duranty reported badly. He knew about the deliberate starvation of over 3 million Ukrainians in the early 1930s and reported nothing. During Stalin’s ‘show trials’ of the late 1930s, Duranty falsely wrote that they were legal and credible. [Stalin’s Apologist: Walter Duranty, the New York Times’ Man in Moscow by S. J. Taylor] I personally know the importance of daily newspapers to Washington insiders. Quite frequently, at the State Department, I was instructed to write immediate confidential ‘corrections’ to what State Department officials were reading in their limousines early in the morning.
Regarding ‘intelligence,’ given America’s sparse covert sources, the Soviets could have gleaned, from the New York Times and some technical journals, better intelligence on the United States than was available on the Soviet Union from all CIA and State Department sources. This poses a massive problem for historians of the Soviet Union. How best to unravel what really happened under Stalin? What were the roles of Beria, Malenkov, and Khrushchev? What actually was behind key Soviet actions? We may never know the full story but, thanks to Professor Taubman, we have detailed insights that seem credible to this historian.
Taubman commenced researching his biography of Khrushchev in the early 1980s. He was tempted to publish in 1989, but, with hitherto unavailable information beginning to seep out, he continued working on the biography for another decade. With the end of the Cold War, Soviet archives were briefly open to researchers. Some of the participants published books that were at least partially historically accurate.
Gradually Professor Taubman accumulated data that permitted him to publish, in 2003, what I consider the definitive book on Khrushchev and his era. His description of how Khrushchev survived and participated during the Stalinist years has the ring of authenticity. After Stalin’s death, Khrushchev eliminated his opponents and pursued a more gentle style of one-man rule. The Khrushchev who was portrayed in the West and assessed by Washington policymakers was sharply different from the real-life Khrushchev. He was a gambler, a liar, and a massive risk taker who seldom considered the strategic implications of his actions. He continually bluffed about the Soviet economy and military prowess. When he threatened to rain nuclear missiles on the West, he had, at best, a few operational missiles that required nearly half an hour to launch. His economy, which he claimed would surpass that of the United States, was sputtering, especially in his self-acclaimed ‘virgin territory.’
While Kennedy, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, was endeavoring to figure out Khrushchev’s strategy, no one imagined that it was rooted in an April, 1962 comment to General Malinovsky, “What if we throw a hedgehog down Uncle Sam’s pants?” as well as Khrushchev’s and Mikoyan’s delight in the revolutionary fervor of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. One wonders how the history of the Cold War might have flowed, had Khrushchev not changed his mind about sending troops back into Hungary during the Hungarian revolution.
Taubman chronicles how the Western image of Khrushchev differed greatly from how he was viewed by the Kremlin’s inner circle. (Might the same have been said about Gorbachev?) The irony was that a blustering Khrushchev was finally peacefully ousted for his clownish behavior and his failure internally and in foreign affairs. He was permitted to live in relative isolation and his son, Serge, ultimately became an American citizen. (Top)
15. The Commanding Heights: The Battle Between Government and the Marketplace that is Remaking the Modern World by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw. I find The Commanding Heights an invaluable Baedeker, as I endeavor to understand global economy systemic changes in recent decades. For decades I could not understand why American economists such as Paul Samuelson (a Pulitzer Prize winner) and Lester Thurow could write about the economic strength and viability of the Soviet command economy. I already was a devotee of Yergin from The Prize, a Pulitzer-winning account of the precipitous evolution of the petroleum industry. I saw the PBS series Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy. I found it, and the companion book, a crystal-clear account of what happened to those who sought the ‘commanding heights’ of Lenin and his communist (and socialist) successors.
Yergin and Stanislaw followed events in over a dozen countries, ranging from Russia and China, to the Third World and Europe. In counterpoint, he traced the free market revolution under Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who benefitted from Keith Joseph’s and Friedrich Hayek’s intellectual underpinnings. The result was a classic country-by-country study of why communist economics failed, why extreme socialist experiments likewise faltered, and why the ‘least worst alternative’ was some sort of free market. The authors did not minimize the downsides of globalization and free markets. These are issues that will prove vexing in the 21st century. (Top)
16. The Origin: A Biographical Novel of Charles Darwin by Irving Stone. I have reread all or large portions of The Origin over a dozen times with sustained enthusiasm. Mr. Stone wrote historical biographies on a broad canvas. Though he devoted years to historical research on his fifteen diverse biographies, in only two (Sailor on Horseback and Clarence Darrow for the Defense) did he scrupulously restrict himself to proven fact. Nonetheless, his other biographies had a ring of authenticity that reflected his uncommon capacity to get under the skin of his characters. For me, Men to Match My Mountains, on the opening of the Far West, captured the mood and the events, as evidenced by his account of John Fremont’s outrageous activities as a pathfinder. Lust for Life (on Vincent Van Gogh) and The Agony and the Ecstasy (on Michelangelo) were robust history that became Hollywood movies. The Greek Treasure about Heinrich Schliemann, the discovery of Troy, and his Greek archeological discoveries was a thriller whose facts were frequently affirmed in my Baedeker.
Stone wrote about wives--Jessie Benton Fremont, Rachel Donelson Jackson, Mary Todd Lincoln, Kate Debs, and Abigail Adams—through whom he provided a broader historical panorama. The Eugene V. Debs who appears in Adversary in the House is far more mild-mannered than the ‘socialist devil’ characterized in the press and by federal prosecutors in the late 1890s and early 1900s.
Stone was a biographer thoroughbred who twice slipped his reins: in the original They Also Ran (1944) and a 1968 update. Here he provided biographic vignettes on candidates who lost in presidential elections and assessed whether the winner or loser would have been a better president. His personal bias was especially evident in his writing on Henry Clay and William Jennings Bryan. On balance, Stone concluded that the United States was better served by a majority of the winners.
My favorite Stone book is The Origin. This five year endeavor breathed fresh life into Darwin’s Beagle journals and revealed the complexities of a man more comfortable writing about pigeons or coral than providing his breakthrough insights on natural selection. Darwin was not a heroic figure. His many maladies and fear of confrontation, together with a desire not to offend his wife’s religious principles, rendered him a procrastinator of the first order. Only after a young scientist independently wrote on natural selection did Darwin’s friends persuade him to publish an article on his findings. One of the ironies of history was that, after his and Alfred Russel Wallace’s blockbuster papers were presented at the distinguished Linnean Society, they initially were totally ignored. Ultimately Sir Charles Darwin was buried at Westminster Abbey a few feet from Sir Isaac Newton. (Top)
17. Brave Companions: Portraits in History by David McCullough. Mr. McCullough is the modern-day Clio of American history. He has personally brought history into the homes of tens of millions of Americans, inspired many millions to buy his books, and has been Horatius at the bridge fighting for history, the humanities, and literacy, while blocking such travesties as a Disney park on the Manassas Battlefield. His voice and demeanor seem a blend of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow. We have heard him on 23 American Experience presidential episodes as well as on other videos ranging from The Donner Pass to the movie Seabiscuit.
Above all, McCullough is a whacking good storyteller whose prodigious research (at times seven years for a major book) results in turn-the-page reading about people and how they influenced events. He provides a seamless entrée into countless historical dramas. His two Pulitzer-winning biographies catapulted John Adams and Harry Truman closer to their rightful places in the pantheon of American presidents. Who remembered that Adams, in placing his country’s interests first, chose not to go to war (against France), thus scuttling his chance for re-election? Regarding the War of Independence, McCullough informed readers that, without General Glover and his Marbeheaders, Washington’s army would have been captured early in the war and his war-saving battle of Trenton would have never occurred.
The story of John Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge breathed new life into the faded sign “Trenton Makes, the World Takes.” An accomplished artist, McCullough relished the opportunity to devote years to The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. In an aside, McCullough chronicled the extraordinary exploits of American Ambassador Elihu Washburne during the dreadful months of the Paris commune. Inspired by the latter years correspondence between Adams and Jefferson, McCullough found time to write an introduction to Affection & Trust: The Personal Correspondence of Harry S. Truman and Dean Acheson 1953-1971, which I found the most heart-warming and instructive ‘odd fellows’ correspondence that I have ever experienced—even better than the Groucho Marx-T. S. Eliot exchanges.
In selecting my favorite McCullough book, I am reminded of the song from Finian’s Rainbow: “When I’m not near the girl [McCullough book] I love, I love the girl [book] I’m near.” The McCullough book that I have most frequently reread is The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914, about how the United States acquired the Panama area in which it constructed the Panama Canal. The story is so outrageous that, if John Grisham had submitted such a synopsis to his publisher, if would have been summarily rejected. [De Lesseps’ Panama canal venture was a total fiasco, which caused a scandal in France. Some Frenchmen, with the connivance of a prominent Wall Street lawyer, sought to sell the rusted remnants to the U. S. government for $40 million. Several mysterious middle men lurked in the background. President Roosevelt was firmly for a Nicaraguan and then a Panamanian canal. Negotiations became confused, especially since Colombia owned the land on which a canal would be constructed. The president, ignoring legalities, sent army observers down to Panama. A fleet followed, and then a U. S.-supported ‘revolution’ occurred in which American businessmen greased the necessary palms. Years later President Roosevelt boasted “I took it.”] Sherlock McCullough, spending many months in France, gradually unraveled a story that would make a marvelous movie.
If I were restricted to a single McCullough book, it would be Brave Companions. These vignettes of major and minor personalities capture the kaleidoscopic scope of McCullough’s uncanny ability to tell a story through individuals. After reading about Louis Agassiz, I’ll never again simply glance at a fish. McCullough’s vignettes on Alexander von Humboldt, Frederick Remington, John Roebling, Harriet Beecher Stowe, , David Plowden (our classmate), and a dozen more made me realize that one doesn’t truly know an individual unless he or she has been McCulloughized. (Top)