The Postwar Years 1945 To 1974

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by Neil Sheehan (1988; Vintage). To understand how the apparently invincible United States military could have been so badly humbled in the Vietnam War, Neil Sheehan made a meticulous investigation of the life and career of one of its most capable officers, Lt. Col. John Paul Vann. Like Sheehan, then a newspaper correspondent, Vann arrived in Vietnam in 1962, early in the game in terms of U.S. involvement. Courageous, confident, and wholly capable, Vann was the living embodiment of the American cold warrior of the early 1960s; he had many thousands of counterparts, both in Vietnam as the buildup continued and in Washington. However, as Sheehan describes so skillfully in A Bright Shining Lie, something went wrong. After Vann’s military career collapsed, he returned to Vietnam as a civilian and was killed there in 1972. Inherently and compulsively immoral, he was at once the symbol of America’s hidden weaknesses during the Cold War and, ultimately, one of its most immediate victims. Vividly written, A Bright Shining Lie is both an action story and a haunting analysis of the most bitter American tragedy of the Cold War.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (1982), Means of Ascent (1990), and Master of the Senate (2002)

by Robert A. Caro (Vintage). Though Robert Caro is a biographer, he doesn’t merely write about celebrated lives. Instead he fills in a broad canvas with faces, institutions, and places, and somewhere in the center of it all, he sets the crucial figure that affected all the rest and was, of course, affected by them. To date, Caro has completed three volumes on (or all around) his greatest subject, Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Path to Power was about Johnson’s early years in the Texas Hill Country; The Means of Ascent, on his serving in the House of Representatives and learning the ropes in Washington; and Master of the Senate, about his handling those ropes as though they were the strings of a puppeteer. Master of the Senate ends in 1959, leaving Johnson’s Vice Presidency and his Presidency for a fourth book, on which Caro is now working.

The Lyndon Johnson Caro presents is not always nice; in fact he is downright crude a lot of the time. For that reason, Caro has been charged with having something against the thirty-fifth President. As a matter of fact, Caro started the project in the 1970s, when, having just finished a book about Robert Moses, whom he did not admire, he decided to write next about someone he did. He chose Johnson. The disturbing truth about Johnson and his methods was as shocking to Caro at first as he makes it to the reader. Inasmuch as any historian can be, Robert Caro is intently and admirably objective about his subject. He manages to show that at least through 1959, Lyndon B. Johnson was probably the single most effective person working in Washington, overseeing the passage, in 1957, of the first new civil rights law since Reconstruction.

Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man

by Garry Wills (1970; Mariner). Nixon Agonistes is about “Richard Nixon and how he got that way,” a critic wrote when the book came out, before Watergate and the infamous resignation. In fact the book was written when Nixon was at the very zenith of his career, a first-term President secure in the hearts of “the silent majority.” Because Nixon was regarded as a staunch and acceptably conservative Republican, Wills’s argument that he was actually a well-disguised liberal was shocking 35 years ago. It has become quite acceptable since. The book is about more than the mysterious Mr. Nixon though; it glides through a wide-ranging discussion of American-style democracy, treating the electoral process as a cultural phenomenon. To this day Nixon Agonistes retains its original sting. It’s a beautifully crafted book by a rare author, one with enough perspective to take a long-range look at the nose-to-nose squabbling that is American politics.

As part of the explanation of Nixon’s peculiar character, Wills cites the President’s habitual seeking out of enemies, surely the mark of a man who helped create the Cold War and was himself created by it. There is a footnote, however: When Nixon’s “enemies list” was made public in the wake of the Watergate investigations, Garry Wills was on it.