by John Lewis Gaddis (1982; Oxford). The theme of Strategies of Containment, John Lewis Gaddis’s seminal book on the American response to the Cold War, is found in the title itself. During the span of U.S.-U.S.S.R. hostility from 1945 to 1982 (when the book was published), America didn’t have just one strategy; it had as many of them as it had Presidents. Strategies of Containment, a follow-up to Gaddis’s influential first book, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941–1947, remains the most respected work on the political aspects, domestic and international, of the struggle at its height.
The book is neatly organized, with at least one chapter covering the doctrine of each presidential administration. Gaddis’s prose is clear, and his analysis is remarkably impartial. His chapters on the Eisenhower “New Look” initiatives are especially intriguing, showing the former general planning for peace, without backing down an inch. As Gaddis said recently, writing about the Cold War when it was still going on was something like writing a history of World War II before the D-Day invasion. That doesn’t mean that Strategies of Containment is outdated, though. A better history of U.S. motivations in the Cold War is not likely to be written any time soon. Gaddis, now a professor at Yale University, is currently working on a much-anticipated biography of George F. Kennan, the dean of American diplomats having granted the dean of diplomatic historians full access to his personal papers.
An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963
by Robert Dallek (2003; Back Bay). In the late 1990s, after years of discussion, the family of John F. Kennedy accorded the biographer Robert Dallek, a professor at Boston University, special access to papers never before opened to any historian, documents related to the health of the late President. The material, which Dallek reviewed with a physician, revealed that when President, Kennedy was racked with serious illnesses and ailments. The public was aware that he had had back problems but never knew the extent to which he was being held together by constant medical attention and a bagful of pharmaceutical drugs. Although the medical revelations form only one section of the finely drawn An Unfinished Life, they color Dallek’s portrait of Kennedy throughout, his depiction of a President who was decidedly not all that the public perceived. Sometimes he was an even greater man, sometimes a lesser one. An Unfinished Life continually probes the popular legend of JFK. Dallek does a particularly responsible job in tracing Kennedy’s foreign policy, ultimately the single most influential aspect of the unfinished Presidency. The sections on the construction of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the relationship between President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and Vietnam are all beautifully told.
Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States
by Kenneth T. Jackson (1985; Oxford). Brooklyn was once a suburb. And so was Harlem, for that matter. As Crabgrass Frontier, Kenneth Jackson’s rich urban history, shows, suburbs reflect not merely how cities look but how they grow and, more compelling, how individuals improve their lot in life. Although planned residential expansion is nothing new, Jackson demonstrates through original research that it became a social phenomenon in the mid-twentieth century after the federal government developed massive programs to make mortgage money easily available, and so encourage individual home ownership. In a narrative filled with sprightly detail, he shows the reader how a suburb is built by showing exactly how a suburban house is built. This is a book not of statistics but of practicalities. Jackson mourns the decline of the center city in America, but he understands why it happened. A professor at Columbia, he himself has a house in Westchester County, as well as an apartment in the heart of the city.
The best thing about reading Crabgrass Frontier is that one will never take a boring drive into or out of town again. Jackson tells us there is always something to see for those who know how to read the history that is written on the outskirts.
Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley