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This is where we place excerpts of reviews of books written by historians and books about history that appear in the mainstream media. For HNN's in-house book reviews, as well as reviews printed in full, go here.
SOURCE: NYT (6-17-12)
SOURCE: Democracy: A Journal of Ideas (6-12-12)
American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation By Michael Kazin • Knopf • 2011 • 330 pages • $27.95
The single moment that made postwar liberalism feel most like a cause worth fighting for came in the darkness of April 4, 1968, when an Indianapolis crowd, assembled to hear Robert F. Kennedy campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, instead met a man obliged to tell them that Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered. When Kennedy broke the news, a desperate wail burst from the throats of those gathered, a sound unlike any other, bespeaking the tide of anguish and anger about to rush over the republic, sweeping reason before it—but not yet, or not here, not if Kennedy had his way.
Speaking off the cuff, he claimed a shared sorrow—his own brother had been killed in the line of political duty, at a time when he had begun to align himself with King. Thinking of what he had learned from the violence, Kennedy recited from Aeschylus the lines that had given him leave to accept that he would never forget or stop feeling pain but that he could nevertheless carry the cause forward. In the wake of this new killing Americans could, Kennedy said, divide themselves from their fellows—but that was not what the country needed. “What we need in the United States,” he said, was “love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.” And the crowd that had begun listening in grief and despair now applauded, and unusually among American cities, Indianapolis did not see violence that night....
In that peak moment of liberalism, one could without embarrassment invoke love as, indeed, all you need; love would do everything that pop music promised, carry you through the darkness and bind you together with all the lonely souls in the nation’s night, tiding you over until the dawn. Certainly there was no other vocabulary, no logic of self-interest or language of patriotism, that seemed able to transcend the divisions among Americans and induce them to support policies for the benefit of others—to do for their country, rather than for themselves. Love gave liberalism, and liberals, guts.
And yet liberals often—and at last completely—rejected it, succumbing to a terrible impulse toward mere rationality. Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson, in their excellent history of postwar American liberalism, The Cause, circle back occasionally to Lionel Trilling’s Liberal Imagination, with its warning that liberalism “drifts toward a denial of the emotions and the imagination,” becoming “mechanical”—or just dead. Michael Kazin, in American Dreamers, his history of American leftists, suggests that it was the radicals—now all but vanished except as bogeymen—that helped give liberalism life. Each book is a superb history that shows what master historians at the peak of their powers and knowledge can do. Each provides opportunities to rethink the American political tradition.
SOURCE: Democracy: A Journal of Ideas (6-12-12)
Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party By Geoffrey Kabaservice • Oxford University Press • 2012 • 504 pages • $29.95
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Newt Gingrich was a moderate Republican. Few remember today that back in 1968 he campaigned in the South for none other than New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. In his first bids for electoral office, Gingrich was twice defeated as the moderate challenger to a segregationist Democrat. Once in Congress, he helped found the Conservative Opportunity Society, but he still portrayed himself as a “Theodore Roosevelt Republican,” never quite renouncing his academic background in favor of a down-and-dirty populism. When he ascended to the leadership of the House in the late 1980s, he did so by courting the support of party moderates. “There’s no question that I would not be House Republican whip if activists in the moderate wing had not supported me,” he reflected after his election. Even in 1989, after shifting to the right, he continued to identify with “the classic moderate wing of the party, where, as a former Rockefeller state chairman, I’ve spent most of my life.”
How times have changed. Today’s Gingrich—not to mention the Gingrich of 1994—would have been unrecognizable to the man who backed Rocky in 1968. His shift is a marker of political polarization and the transformation of the Republican Party into a fiercely ideological hard-right party by almost every measure. In 2010, for example, National Journal found that every Senate Republican had a voting record more conservative than every Democrat. Politicians once seen as moderates have been driven from the Republican Party, either losing elections to conservatives or simply switching parties. And many of those who once deemed themselves moderate—like Newt Skywalker, as he was known back in the day for his space-age techno-geek’s support for “Star Wars” and NASA—have shifted inexorably to the right. Conservatism itself is more extreme than it used to be.
In Rule and Ruin, Geoffrey Kabaservice treats the demise of the Republican moderates as a gripping historical mystery. What happened to the “vital center”? The culprit, he argues, is “the transformation of the Republican Party over the past half-century into a monolithically conservative organization.” That shift has brought us the “vicious and violent” tone of our discourse and the “extreme, antagonistic, uncompromising and ineffectual” nature of our politics....
SOURCE: NYT (6-10-12)
SOURCE: NYT (6-10-12)
SOURCE: NYT (6-2-12)
SOURCE: NYT (6-2-12)
Fred Andrews writes for the New York Times.
ARTHUR HERMAN has set out to right an injustice: the loss, down history’s memory hole, of the epic achievements of American business in helping the United States and its allies win World War II.
Dr. Herman, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a writer of popular histories, says he believes that American business has never gotten its due. He contends that it won the war but lost “the narrative.” Business was denigrated by envious New Dealers, he says, and upstaged by the Keynesian focus on the war years’ $300 billion in deficit spending that finally ended the Great Depression.
The author is avowedly pro-business, but you don’t have to share that perspective to enjoy “Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II” (Random House, $28). It is indeed a rarely told industrial saga, rich with particulars of the growing pains and eventual triumphs of American industry as it exploded from negligible arms output to an arsenal of weaponry then unmatched in human history....
SOURCE: Religion Dispatches (6-3-12)
Paul Harvey runs the blog Religion in American History and teaches history at the University of Colorado.
When all the trees fall in David Barton’s historical forest and no one hears it, did they really fall? If we get history “right” but do so only by playing a game set by rigged rules, and engaging in debates with those whose projects are basically political and entrepreneurial rather than intellectual, do we feed the very beast we are trying to tame?
I pondered these questions while reading Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter’s excellent, blow-by-blow refutation of David Barton’s take on Jefferson, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President.
The authors are professed evangelical Christians who teach at Grove City College, a school whose mission statement rejects “secularism and relativism” and promotes intellectual and social development “consistent with a commitment to Christian truth, morals, and freedom.” They begin with an encomium to George Marsden’s The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, one of whose principles is to seek the truth with detachment and “avoid tendentiousness.” Barton, who is obsessed with Poststructuralists and Deconstructionists, would not appear to have reason to worry about that with these reviewers, who write with a calm, measured voice and have created a website to update and fact-check their own material....
SOURCE: NYT (5-20-12)
SOURCE: NYRB (5-24-12)
Garry Wills is Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern. His most recent book, Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, and the Mystery of Baptism, was published in April 2012.
Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson—this is the fourth volume of a planned five—was originally conceived and has been largely executed as a study of power. But this volume has been overtaken by a more pressing theme. It is a study in hate. The book’s impressive architectonics come from the way everything is structured around two poles or pillars—Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy, radiating reciprocal hostilities at every step of the story. Caro calls it “perhaps the greatest blood feud of American politics in the twentieth century.” With some reservations about the word “blood,” one has to concede that Caro makes good his claim for this dynamic in the tale he has to tell.
There are many dramatic events, throughout the volume, that illustrate Caro’s theme. I begin with one that could seem insignificant to those not knowing the background on both sides, because it shows that even the slightest brush between these two triggered rancorous inner explosions. Johnson, newly sworn in as president, had just come back to Washington on Air Force One from the terrible death of John Kennedy in Dallas. Robert Kennedy sped up the steps to the plane and rushed fiercely down the length of the cabin through everyone standing in his way (including the new president) to reach Jacqueline Kennedy. Understandable that he would first of all want to comfort the widow? Yes, but. This was the first of many ways Bobby (called that throughout) tried in the first days to ignore the man who had ignominiously, in his eyes, supplanted his brother by a murder in the man’s own Texas.
Caro understands that Bobby was determined not to see Johnson, even if he saw him—so he did not see him. But Johnson saw him not seeing, and hated him the more. That is how hate narrows one—narrows what one wants to see, or is able to see, in order to keep one’s hatred tended and hard.
Both men had good reason to treat each other with some empathy at that moment. Johnson had just inherited a crushing office, in a time of national crisis, and had to legitimize himself in every way he could. Bobby should have recognized the need of the nation, and gulped down the unwelcome fact that Johnson was, in fact, the president now. He should have set a pattern for stricken Kennedy loyalists on the plane. Johnson, on the other hand, should have sympathized with a brother still reeling from an incalculable loss, a man moving in a blur of emotions, and he should have swallowed his resentment at the snub. But they were blocked from the generosities needed in such a moment of tragedy by their previous clashes, well laid out by Caro.
Bobby had a long history of trying not to see Johnson, of resenting it when forced to acknowledge his presence; and he loathed shaking his hand. It began with their very first recorded meeting, in 1953. Lyndon Johnson came into the Senate cafeteria for his customary breakfast there. He was trailing his entourage, radiating his power as minority leader. He passed the table of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was sitting near the entrance with three or four staffers, including a newcomer to his team, twenty-seven-year-old Robert Kennedy, who had just got this job through the influence of his father, a McCarthy supporter. Johnson knew about that arrangement, as he did all the things that went on in “his” Senate. Johnson had mocked Joe Kennedy all over town and despised Joe McCarthy as a loose cannon in the Senate. He also did not think much of the newly elected senator John Kennedy, whom he would soon be calling a sickly absentee from the Senate and “not a man’s man.”
Yet McCarthy, with his coarse affability, leaped to his feet when Johnson approached, greeted him as “Leader,” and shook his hand. His aides followed suit, all but one, who remained seated, with an expression of distaste. Bobby knew what Johnson had been saying about his father and his boss, and he always bristled at slights directed at his own revered family. He refused to get up, or even to look at Johnson. Johnson, whose own history of humiliations Caro has traced in earlier volumes, was just as quick to sense contempt, and determined to crush it if he could. He was a bully and a sadist, and he took the earliest opportunity to force Kennedy to submit to the dreaded handshake. He went right up to him, towering over him (he always put his height to use) and crowded at him with a half-extended hand. Finally, in the embarrassment of a growing silence, Kennedy rose and, with averted eyes, shook Johnson’s hand. Johnson felt he had made this lowly staffer crawl. It would prove to be a costly victory....
SOURCE: NYT (5-13-12)
SOURCE: NYT (5-14-12)
Janet Maslin writes for the New York Times.
After Ferdinand De Wilton Ward Jr. became notorious as a Gilded Age financial schemer of rare weaselly ingenuity, his picture appeared in a manual of phrenology. The shape of his “low-top head, very broad from side to side,” was said to explain why Ward had shown the “Secretiveness, Cunning, Acquisitiveness, Destructiveness” to bilk investors, shame and bankrupt a former president and try to kidnap his own son.
Within the large Ward clan Ferdinand remains “the family sociopath,” although each of his parents was a candidate for that distinction. It took a great-grandson of Ferdinand’s, the prizewinning historian Geoffrey C. Ward, to write the scandal-filled but eminently fair book that airs this dirty laundry.
Geoffrey Ward has reason for backhanded pride when it comes to his great-grandfather’s malfeasance. Ferdinand was not just any crook; he created a Ponzi scheme before Charles Ponzi was even born. He can legitimately be called the Bernard Madoff of his time, and he had the public infamy and prison sentence to prove it. Ferd, as he was known, was incarcerated at both the Ludlow Street Jail and the Tombs in New York, but it was not until he reached Sing Sing that his gifts as a con man really reached their peak. Thanks to well-placed bribes he got a nicer-than-average cell and the privilege of wearing a straw hat, not a striped one.
Before the arrival of this book, “A Disposition to Be Rich,” which takes its title from Ferd’s mother’s excuse for his problems, not much was written directly about Ward’s chicanery....
SOURCE: NYT (5-5-12)
Calories were made to be counted, but they have generally been counted for two very different reasons. We associate calories with excess, but for most of its history this little unit of energy was linked to shortage. The years since World War II have been a time of cheap and plentiful food, and of obese and sick citizens. Since our own daily struggle is fought against fat, we fail to see that many of the conflicts of the past were wars against hunger. Just as obesity leads to diabetes and human blindness, so plentiful food leads to decadent forms of history and social blindness. We are fortunate to have a bracing book like “The Taste of War,” which does much to correct understanding of the causes of armed conflict and mass murder.
If World War II were only about bad ideas, as we like to think, then we are all safe. Who among us admires Hitler, Himmler or Hirohito? But if the war and its atrocities had to do with material want, we cannot so easily separate ourselves from evil. Lizzie Collingham soberly argues that the expansionist designs of both Nazi Germany and imperial Japan must be understood within a world political economy in which the single crucial commodity was food. The British Empire had dominated a global system of free trade that was disrupted by the Great Depression. States like Germany and Japan, unable to supply themselves with sufficient food for their own citizens from domestic sources, had two choices. They could play the game by the British rules, which could seem humiliating and pointless in the 1930s, or they could try to control more territory.
Collingham, the author of “Imperial Bodies” and “Curry,” sketches the hunger motive on the body of the Japanese soldier in Asia, who not only starved others but was starved himself. The energetic Japanese attacks remembered with chagrin by British and American soldiers were driven by the need to capture food from the enemy. In the end, more Japanese soldiers died from starvation and associated diseases than in combat....
SOURCE: NYT (5-5-12)
It’s anyone’s guess whether our digital world ends with a bang, a whimper or a singularity. One thing’s for sure: It began with a double entendre.
The digital age can be traced to a machine built circa 1951 in Princeton, N.J. That machine was given the bureaucratic-sounding name the Mathematical and Numerical Integrator and Computer, and was known by the acronym Maniac, meaning something wild and uncontrollable — which it proved to be. But the crucial double entendre was contained in the computer’s memory. For the first time, numbers could mean numbers or instructions. Data could be a noun or a verb.
That turned out to be incredibly important, as George Dyson makes clear in his latest book, “Turing’s Cathedral,” a groundbreaking history of the Princeton computer. Though the English mathematician Alan Turing gets title billing, Dyson’s true protagonist is the Hungarian-American John von Neumann, presented here as the Steve Jobs of early computers — a man who invented almost nothing, yet whose vision changed the world.
Von Neumann was no stereotypical mathematician. He was urbane, witty, wealthy and (literally) entitled. At his 1926 doctoral exam, the mathematician David Hilbert is said to have asked but one question: “Pray, who is the candidate’s tailor?” He had never seen such beautiful evening clothes....
SOURCE: The New Republic (4-26-12)
Richard Evans is Regius Professor of History and President of Wolfson College at Cambridge University, and author of The Third Reich at War, published by the Penguin Press in 2009.
...The story of the Battle of Kiev has been told many times, but seldom in such detail as it is in David Stahel’s book. Relying mainly on German sources, he brings new evidence to bear on the conflict with the official war diaries of German divisions, as well as making good use of published editions of the private field-post letters and diaries of German soldiers of all ranks. This is emphatically a military history, replete with complex (and not always easily decipherable) maps of troop movements and dispositions, technical terms, titles and abbreviations, and full names for all the troop units involved. Some of this impedes readability (particularly irritating is the use of Roman numerals, as in “the XXXXVII Panzer Corps”), but overall Stahel conveys extremely complex military action with exemplary clarity.
Unlike more traditional military historians, Stahel is acutely aware of the wider context of the action, from Hitler’s overall aims for the war to the importance of logistics for the outcome; from the murderous racism and ruthless pragmatism with which the German leaders, military as well as political, condemned so many Soviet civilians to starve and so many Jewish inhabitants to terrible death, to the postwar disputes among historians and retired generals over Hitler’s strategy; from the conditions troops had to face in the Ukrainian and Russian autumn and winter to the basic realities of the economic foundations of the German war effort, foundations which, he argues convincingly if not entirely originally, were starting to crumble almost from the moment when Operation Barbarossa was launched.
His realism refreshingly prevents him from following traditional military historians’ often overly positive and simplistic descriptions of “great” generals and “decisive” battles. Kiev, as he correctly notes, was only part of a much wider conflict, and the impression, so enthusiastically conveyed by Hitler and his Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, that it was a decisive step in the conquest of the Soviet Union, was in reality no more than an illusion. Privately, Goebbels was far less optimistic than he told his tame press to be about the outcome of the war. Already in mid-September 1941, on the eve of the capture of Kiev, he was noting in his diary that the war in the east was not going to end as quickly as Hitler had supposed. The blitzkrieg had turned into a war of resources. “After it has become known that the campaign in the east cannot be brought to an end in the time we had actually expected to do so, the people should also be made aware of what difficulties we confront … It now depends on who can endure this the longest ... Indeed, we are now fighting with our backs against the wall.”...
...The Canadian Hugh Brewster joined the committed ranks of Titanic-philes in the mid-1980s, when he spent a year creating a book from images and data of Robert Ballard’s discovery of the wreck. In Brewster’s new book, “Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage,” he revisits the ill-fated trans-Atlantic crossing as experienced by the “rare gathering” of famous and affluent among the approximately 1,500 who died and the 705 who survived.
Brewster’s nuanced account introduces us to a plutocracy frolicking in the sunset of England’s Edwardian era and America’s Gilded Age. He pushes past stereotypes to vividly describe the elite realm on deck, a place where the American politico Archie Butt, a right-hand man to Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, might have shared pleasantries with Capt. Edward J. Smith or chatted with John Jacob Astor IV as he exercised his Airedale, Kitty. A bugler’s call signaled passengers to rise from their gilt-edged loungers in the Turkish bath, or to put down their stogies in the opulent public room designed to emulate Versailles, and descend the grand staircase in white tie and splendid gowns for a lusty meal including “Oysters à la Russe,” “Chocolate Painted Éclairs” and, of course, Champagne (more than 22,000 bottles of wine, beer and spirits were onboard). The women would have had to go light on the 11-course meal, as most were still squeezed into corsets. The inconceivable distance between this twinkling reality and death in the dark, icy waters was but a few hours.
The haunting moans and pleas of those pitched into the sea — and even worse, the silence that followed — are what plague the subjects in “Shadow of the Titanic,” by the British journalist and biographer Andrew Wilson. Many survivors suppressed memories of the event, but nearly all reported that the “awful, nightmarish cries” of those dying in the water were never forgotten....
Geoffrey Kabaservice’s latest book is “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party.”
It’s unlikely that Mitt Romney saw the film “The Graduate” when it appeared in 1967. He was a 20-year-old Mormon missionary in France at the time, isolated from the cultural influences that shaped most Americans of the baby-boom generation, and his taste in movies ran to more wholesome fare like “The Sound of Music.” If he had seen it, though, one doubts that he would have scoffed along with his contemporaries during the scene in which a smarmy businessman declares that the key to the future is “plastics.” He might have considered it useful career advice.
Critics have noted Romney’s plastic qualities ever since he entered politics: the elasticity of his views, the android awkwardness of his interactions with voters, his slick evasions and platitudes, his sculptured features and molded hair, and his apparent lack of appetites and passions. But plastic is also durable and indispensable, and although a majority of Republican voters in the primaries so far have preferred Anyone but Romney, he appears poised to win the party’s presidential nomination. Despite the growing possibility that Romney may soon occupy the nation’s highest office, he remains an enigma to most Americans, and his campaign seems predicated on the hope that voters will see in his smooth surfaces whatever they want to see.
The great service of this new biography by the Boston Globe journalists Michael Kranish and Scott Helman is that it humanizes Romney. The authors sniff over their subject with bloodhound thoroughness, dredging up old report cards, housing deeds, and family records and videos. They interview seemingly everyone who had contact with Romney in every phase of his life. They conclude that he is in many ways an admirable man, deeply devoted to his religion and family and possessing stellar qualities that made him a success in business and public service, including his leadership of the 2002 Winter Olympics and his governorship of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007....
SOURCE: The New Republic (3-29-12)
Steve Hahn teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author, most recently, of The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom (Harvard University Press). This article appeared in the April 19, 2012 issue of the magazine.
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
By Manning Marable
(Viking Press, 594 pp., $30)
When Malcolm X died in a hail of assassin’s gunfire at the Audubon Ballroom in February 1965, the mainstream media in the United States was quick to suggest that he reaped the harvest of bloodshed he had brazenly sown. Calling him an “extremist,” “a demagogue,” a “racist,” and a “spiritual desperado,” commentators often insisted that Malcolm advocated the use of violence, regarded whites as “devils,” and was an embodiment—as a television series on the Nation of Islam had put it in 1959—of the “hate that hate produced.” At best, the press acknowledged Malcolm’s oratorical skills and razor-sharp intelligence, and found him to be personally impressive but politically misguided; at worst, they regarded him as an opportunist and religious zealot intent on stirring the cauldron of racial conflict, the polar opposite of the increasingly admired Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
Several months later, with the posthumous publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X (produced in collaboration with Alex Haley), a more complex portrait began to emerge. It depicted a life of major and unexpected transformations, from a young street-hustling, drug-peddling burglar to a born-again member of the Nation of Islam and finally to an activist whose simultaneous spiritual and political reawakenings tragically presaged his death. The vehicle of this veritable transubstantiation was the penitentiary to which he was confined for seven years and where, owing to the initiatives of a fellow inmate and family members, Malcolm embarked on a journey of re-education, which included his embrace of the spiritual guidance of Elijah Muhammad.
Manning Marable’s stunning and fascinating biography of Malcolm X helps us to navigate these different representations, and pays special attention to how the Autobiography was constructed and how its narrative may be viewed. But more than anything else, Marable gives us a Malcolm we have never really seen before, and makes sense of him and the world in which he lived: a figure whose deep political genealogy gave powerful shape to how he developed and what he did at various points in his life. This is an impressive study not so much of “reinvention” as of political education, and it offers profound insight into the ideas and the aspirations that would constitute African America in the modern age....