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
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
by Peter Guralnick (1994 and 1999; Back Bay). We all think we know Elvis Presley, the poor boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, who fell in love with what were called in his teenage years, “race records.” Played only by black radio stations, race records reflected the rocking blues sound of such artists as Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf. Presley learned much of what he knew about singing from those disks. In 1953, at 18, he walked into Sun Records and asked to record a song for his mother’s birthday. With that the music world discovered Elvis Presley and saw in him, as Greil Marcus wrote in Mystery Train, “a great artist, a great rocker, a great purveyor of shock, a great heart throb, a great bore, a great symbol of potency, a great ham, a great nice person, and, yes, a great American.” The question still outstanding was, When would Elvis discover Elvis—and what would he find when he did? Peter Guralnick’s poignant books finally look for the answers to the many questions surrounding that boy we thought we knew, the answers Elvis himself never found.
Last Train to Memphis covers Elvis’s rise to stardom, leaving off with his induction into the Army in 1958. His beloved mother died at almost the same time, and so the turning point is well chosen. Careless Love opens on October 1, 1958, the day Presley arrived in Germany, when his life began its slow but unmistakable process of disintegration. Guralnick’s two-volume biography is an intricate masterwork that touches on everything from Jim Crow to the sexual revolution to the terrors fame holds for those as ill prepared as Elvis was.
Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
by David J. Garrow (1986; Perennial). Bearing the Cross traces the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s emergence as the leader of the civil rights movement in America and simultaneously charts his personal struggles as an African-American man trying to make sense of his own life during that era. David Garrow, who had written Protest at Selma, was inspired by transcriptions of Dr. King’s sermons to search for the emotional spirit behind his subject. He succeeded by bringing to King’s life a level of scholarly research that will probably never be matched.
King was the son of a minister, born in comfortable circumstances in Atlanta and educated at first-rate schools, including Boston University. A self-effacing and thoughtful man, he was often frustrated by the job of governing the complicated personalities within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Ultimately, he had more success as the spiritual head of the movement than as its commanding general. Trying to decide exactly what his role was, though, clouded the sanguine outlook he so eloquently expressed in the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. By 1968, Garrow shows, events had corroded King’s original optimism, making him thoroughly disillusioned and indeed, pessimistic about America’s chances for mending the torn relationship between the races. He was assassinated that year, and he did not live to see the progress that was built on the ideas of nonviolence he laid down.
Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution
by Diane McWhorter (2001; Simon & Schuster). In Carry Me Home, Diane McWhorter describes in intimate terms the face-off between whites and blacks in the South during the civil rights era. The backdrop is her hometown, the city that became known around the world as a continuing, deadly battleground in that struggle, Birmingham, Alabama, or, as it was known from the 1940s to the 1960s, “Bomb-ingham.” The deadly explosion at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the worst of the violence, killing four young girls, but the city saw many such attacks and protests. One resulted in the incarceration of King and the composition of his famous “Letter From the Birmingham Jail.” Carry Me Home introduces a new cast of characters to the understanding of the confrontation there, as McWhorter, with the greatest sensitivity, describes the individuals who pushed events, often from the shadows. For example, she shows that in the white community it was not the blue-collar core but an unlikely combination of Northern industrial interests and outwardly respectable local religious groups that roiled the violence and sometimes even set it in motion.
McWhorter based Carry Me Home on copious new research yet anchored it with her own recollections of growing up white and to some degree racist in Birmingham during the era about which she writes. For that reason, her book answers the question of why, by examining in the most specific terms possible who.
A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam
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.