In his kaleidoscopic novel U.S.A., a trilogy published between 1930 and 1936, John Dos Passos offered a descriptive line that has always stayed with me. America, he wrote, is “a public library full of… dog-eared history books with protests scrawled on the margins.” Historical writing at its best is composed not only of facts but of thoughts and directions. And in this fastpaced country, where currents are very much subject to abrupt change, it is often hard for a history book to take root. As every published historian knows, no book is the last word. Some books, however, do stand the test of time to become pillars that can’t be toppled by revisionist trends. That is the case with the texts I’ve chosen to represent the years 1945 to 1974. No amount of fashionable deconstruction can pale their relevance. The excellence of the research and the elegance of the prose in these classics reflect the highest standard of enduring scholarship. The quality of the thinking and the anecdotal brilliance throughout keep them fresh. Protests there may be, but derailments? Not likely.
The books I’ve chosen are works of history—not memoirs, novels, or contemporary accounts. That criterion forced me to leave out some superb books about the Cold War era, from Dean Acheson’s Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department and Arthur M. Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House to James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and Joyce Carol Oates’s Them. Also absent from this list are essayists’ works that changed the way we live: Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, for example, and The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan. The list of excellent books written in and about postwar America would be long and certainly varied. It was not an era for the weak-willed or apathetic, starting as it did with the first use of atomic weapons and continuing through McCarthyism, the Korean War, agitation and violence over civil rights, feminism, the Vietnam War, the spread of the drug culture, and the rise of environmentalism.
In the decades following World War II, Dos Passos turned to American history to make sense of modern times, writing, for example, The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson and Mr. Wilson’s War. Although he considered himself a “second-class historian,” he called the discipline “the greatest of the literary arts.” The titles I’ve chosen, written by professional literary artists, deal with the years when Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were in the White House. In various ways, each captures the Cold War era, a time of unholy strengths and barely restrained fears. “Writing,” Dos Passos once said, “is like setting up milk bottles at fairs for people to throw baseballs at.” In choosing these books, I’ve abandoned hardball analysis. Instead I’m dusting off the milk bottles, standing them up straight and urging everybody to look at them.
by David McCullough (1992; Simon & Schuster). When David McCullough’s thousand-page biography of Harry S. Truman hit the top of the bestseller list in 1992, the late President was suddenly thrust back into politics again. Filled with stories of both ordinary days and monumental ones in the life of the thirty-third President, the book vividly reminded America of the unique leader it had once had in Mr. Truman, a man complicated in his ambitions but never in his integrity. Thanks to the book, sparks flew in the 1992 presidential campaign, as George H. W. Bush, the Republican incumbent, and Bill Clinton, the Democratic contender, each compared himself to “Give ‘Em Hell” Harry and vied strenuously to inherit his mantle. Thanks to McCullough’s Truman, it is very much a living legacy.
When it comes to sheer elegance of historical prose, David McCullough is practically unmatched. With Truman, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, he presents a historically balanced and vigorously researched biography of the man who came from nowhere, so it seemed, to become President on the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. The newcomer certainly didn’t act like a neophyte as he faced Cold War crises in Korea and Berlin and recognized the new state of Israel. One must be awed by his implementation of a new construct for national security, as he created the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Council, and the Department of Defense. He also made the Marshall Plan a reality and was a leader in the creation of the United Nations. When Truman was preparing to leave office in 1952, Winston Churchill told him, “You, more than any other man, have saved Western civilization.”
Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy