HNN Book Editors: Our Favorite Books of the Last Couple of Years
An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942–1943, by Rick Atkinson ( Henry Holt, 2002; Owl Books paperback, 2003)
Lately, when I ponder military history, I keep returning to Rick Atkinson's masterful account of the U.S. and British campaign against German forces in North Africa. The work is a conventional war story in many ways: it chronicles the movements of men and materiel over oceans and across the land; it details battles from squad through corps level; and it supplies us with good maps featuring military symbols moving through the terrain. Atkinson's thorough research and excellent writing enliven the narrative with a wealth of anecdotes from privates and generals alike.
So, it is no overstatement to call An Army at Dawn a superb war book (it did win the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2003, after all). But I can’t stop thinking about this volume because it fundamentally reoriented my thinking about World War II. Atkinson so skillfully argues that this campaign was a "pivot point in American history, the place where the United States began to act like a great power—militarily, diplomatically, strategically, tactically. Along with Stalingrad and Midway, North Africa is where the Axis enemy forever lost the initiative of World War II." The invasion of Normandy, as enormous as it remains both in actual importance and the world’s imagination, owed its success to lessons the Anglo-American alliance learned eighteen months earlier.
One indicator of a book’s success is the intensity of anticipation for the publication of the author's next one. This strength of feeling is heightened when the author has promised a series of books (remember Harry Potter fans' near-panic anticipation of the publication of J.K. Rowling's fifth installment?). Since An Army at Dawn is the first book in what Atkinson terms "The Liberation Trilogy," wherein subsequent books will chronicle the war in Italy and finally in the rest of Western Europe, my anticipation for the next two volumes leaves me rather glum that I have to wait to read them.
The Great Influenza, by John Barry (Viking, 2004)
This is the story, eloquently and lucidly told, of "the greatest plague in history"-- the influenza pandemic of 1918, which began in Kansas and ultimately killed 675,000 Americans and 50-100 million people worldwide. 0ur reviewer, E. James Lieberman, M.D., praised it for showing "how exceptional science, humanitarian impulses, honest reporting, and courageous leadership" had to contend with a media and political leaders who sought to maintain public calm by keeping from the public the knowledge that the epidemic could kill huge numbers of people. John Barry concludes by warning that the development and use of "a weaponized virus could be the equivalent of a worldwide nuclear holocaust."
Truth to tell, the three most engaging, best-written books I've read this year were David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing, Gordon Wood's Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, and Joseph Ellis's His Excellency George Washington. But none of them is in any danger of being overlooked. And I should probably stick to my area, which is twentieth century America.
It would be a shame to overlook Robert P. Newman's Enola Gay and the Court of History (201 pages, Peter Lang, $24.95 paperback, $69.95 hardcover). in a brief, briskly written analysis, Newman, emeritus professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, shows how Paul Nitze's willful misreading of the post-World War II Strategic Bombing Survey was subsequently used to buttress the"revisionist" interpretation of the decision to drop the bomb and even contributed to the debacle that was the Smithsonian's 1995 Enola Gay exhibit. Nitze was a true Cold Warrior--a"quintessential hawk [who] until the 1990s never met a weapon system he did not like"--and had his own reasons for denying the efficacy of strategic bombing. Then Gar Alperovitz and other hard-line revisionists on the left bought into Nitze's arguments for their own purposes. Between them, right and left mangled historical precision, accuracy, and balance. To his great credit (and despite sloppy copy-editing), Newman helps to restore that balance. His book is a triumph of evidence over ideologies.
Adams Vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, by John Ferling (Oxford University Press, 2004).
Do competing ideologies, intense political debate, and vicious name-calling sound familiar? No, it wasn’t the election of 2004, but rather the presidential election of 1800.
This book addresses the election of 1800, a boisterous campaign that ultimately ended in a deadlock in the Electoral College and resulted in a crisis in which the young nation teetered on the brink of collapse.
In the early nineteenth century, as America was struggling to organize itself into a new nation, it faced threats from foreign governments as well as a series of constitutional battles. With this as the background, there was a dramatic struggle underway between two political parties with significantly different views of how the nation should be governed. John Adams led the Federalists, conservatives who believed in strong central government. Thomas Jefferson led the Republicans, egalitarians who firmly believed that the Federalists had betrayed the Revolution of 1776 and were advancing down the slippery slope toward monarchy.
The presidential campaign itself was a brawl just as ruthless as the 2004 election, with intense mud-slinging. The Federalists called Jefferson a “howling atheist,” while the Republicans accused the Federalists of resorting to scare-mongering. In fact, scare tactics and backstabbing were common during the election of 1800. The low point came when Alexander Hamilton wrote a vigorous attack on Adams, the leader of his own party, in what was characterized as “fifty-four pages of unremitting vilification.”
The election culminated in a stalemate in the Electoral College that dragged on for days, through dozens of votes. Tensions were so volatile that the Republicans threatened civil war if the Federalists did not give Jefferson the presidency. Ferling maintains that the deadlocked election was finally resolved in the House of Representatives, after 36 votes, in a secret agreement between Jefferson and his rivals, the Federalists, which gave Jefferson the presidency by only a single vote. John Adams left Washington in the early morning hours on Inauguration Day, too angry to even shake hands with his opponent.
Ferling argues that Jefferson’s election consummated the American Revolution, guaranteeing the democratization of America and its separation from Great Britain.
This book shows how the political parties manipulated the media, rallied people to the polls, and exploited the law to enhance Electoral College votes. The election of 1800 raised the question of whether the American government could be transferred peacefully from one party to another – a scenario that had never occurred before in the United States and was still unusual in the Western world.
Given that the news for much of 2004 has been dominated by reports of political partisanship, cheap shots, and electoral deviousness, Ferling’s book demonstrates that the political process has actually changed little in the last 200 years. Rather than viewing the rhetoric of this year’s election as anything new, this book suggests that it was merely a recurrence of previous political squabbles.
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Guy Storms - 1/2/2005
A simple observation on Gene Gerard's review of "Adams vs. Jefferson": Gerard has stated that Ferling's book "demonstrates that the political process has actually changed little in the last 200 years", and that we should view the rhetoric, media manipulation and political maneuvering as "merely a recurrence of previous political squabbles."
Rather than this fact being a source of reasurrance to the reader that the American political tradition is alive and well, functioning as it should, we all should be very afraid, knowing that America is still functioning as an eighteenth century fledgling nation state as we move deeper into the twenty-first century. Most significantly, we all should be reminded that America potentially holds the fate of world civilization's furture development in its grasp, while internal rivalries dominate its politics.
Be afraid - be very afraid.