Spring 2012 Books

PrintPrintEmailEmail It was Rochefort who was primarily responsible for decoding Japanese communications and deducing Yamamoto’s intentions, including the crucial intelligence that the enemy would attack with four carriers. Armed with this information, Nimitz avoided a Japanese trap. The resulting clash took place at Midway, a lonely atoll in the middle of the Pacific, which served as a critical outpost for a U.S. Navy operating a thousand miles from Pearl Harbor.
After setting the scene, Symonds delivers a blow-by-blow account of the battle, beginning with a chapter on “Nagumo’s Dilemma” in the early morning, proceeding to the “Tipping Point” in late morning, and concluding with “The Japanese Counterstrike” in the afternoon. When the smoke from the burning ships had cleared, Nimitz’s forces were masters of the Pacific. (Oxford University Press, 464 pages, $27.95)
 
Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War
By Tony Horwitz
 
Anyone despairing over the bile in our public discourse today might find cold comfort in recognizing that it has been worse, especially during the 1850s, when the core issue was slavery—whether to allow it in new states or end it everywhere—and take-no-prisoner extremists dictated both sides of the argument. Midnight Rising examines the most famous abolitionist of them all—John Brown, a magnetic personality if humdrum orator, who was obsessed with the idea of doing God’s work (as he saw it): to arm America’s slaves so that they would rise up and free themselves. Thus his famous raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, a factory and warehouse in northwest Virginia containing 100,000 guns, which he and a band of 21 followers captured without firing a shot—and then lost a day later with the forfeit of several lives and without freeing a single slave, let alone inspiring a wider revolt.
Not the biography of a mad martyr, this is a warts-and-all portrait of America at a landmark moment, the gripping story of an incendiary event that one man ignited—and in so doing, blew the nation off its axis. Never has Brown’s story been told more convincingly and thrillingly. Nor have screaming rhetoric and extremist polarity ever had such dire consequences. (Henry Holt, 365 pages, $29)
 
The Nation’s Hangar: Aircraft Treasures of the Smithsonian from the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
By F. Robert Van Der Linden
Photography by Dane A. Penland and others
 
As the National Air and Space Museum’s director boasts in his foreword, the Smithsonian was interested in aeronautical matters even before aviation was invented, having begun collecting Chinese kites in 1876. This descriptive catalogue celebrates the latest addition to Smithsonian’s family of museums, the huge NASM annex known as the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, located 30 miles from the National Mall at Dulles International Airport. The book is instructive, straightforward, laudatory, and colorful in its photographs.
Notably, the chapter on “Restoration and Conservation” purposefully describes the criteria for acquiring, stabilizing, and preserving artifacts. Proper stewardship does not, for example, make all old objects look spanking new. Much of value of museum-quality holdings lies in their antiquity, including the scars of their experience. At best, a museum’s proper goal in handling some objects is simply to stabilize them in perpetuity, while a proper activity is not simply to collect as many examples of this-and-that as it can find. NASM consequently has defined clear criteria—historical, technological, and practical standards—to govern its acquisitions. While here is the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb in anger, and there the Concorde, the fastest commercial airliner ever, museums are not properly halls merely of “oh, wow!” They must also be educational, historiographic, and conservative in the word’s original sense.
Discussions of “The Early Years of Flight” and the “The Golden Age of Flight” provide overviews of those eras, with heavy emphasis on the airplanes and other flying machines on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center. Three chapters are devoted to military aircraft and the exploits of U.S. aviators in wartime. (Smithsonian Books, 256 pages, $29.95)
 
American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America
By Colin Woodard
 
When politicians champion the concept of America as a union of united states, writes historian Colin Woodward, “they overlook a glaring historical fact. Americans have been deeply divided since the days of Jamestown and Plymouth.” North America, he suggests, would be more harmoniously divided into 11 “nations,” each one “a group of people who share—or believe they share—a common culture, ethnic origin, language, historical experience, artifacts and symbols.”
On the map his plan makes congressional gerrymanders look tidy. “The Midlands,” for example, stretch from an Atlantic toehold in New Jersey through the south central Midwest to a snippet of Colorado, then snake north around Minnesota and backtrack over the Great Lakes through Canada as far as “New France.” “Yankeedom” encompasses New England (minus bits of Connecticut and New York), then stretches across northern Pennsylvania into Ohio to embrace Michigan and Wisconsin: “From the outset it was a culture that put great emphasis on education, local political control and the pursuit of the ‘greater good’ of the community. . . .