Roger Bishop

Robert S. McNamara served as secretary of defense in the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations and was the primary architect of America’s war strategy in Vietnam in the 1960s. Even as the war became increasingly unpopular, Robert continued to insist that progress was being made, that victory was just around the corner. He didn’t admit his mistakes, even when doing so could have changed history. Many veterans and protesters still believe Robert never fully apologized for his role in the war—including his only son.

Craig McNamara’s loving but brutally honest account of his difficult relationship with his father, Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, From Vietnam to Today, tells of his father’s reluctance or inability to engage him in serious discussion about the evils of the war, or to apologize to the country. Veterans wanted Robert to understand the true cost of the war in human terms of lost lives and limbs rather than “lessons learned in the war,” as Robert put it in his 1995 book, In Retrospect. When that book was published, Craig asked his father why it took 30 years for him to try to explain himself. “Loyalty” was his father’s only answer. For Craig, this meant loyalty to the presidents he served without regard for ordinary people. This loyalty to the system eventually got Robert appointed as president of the World Bank and led to other personal advantages. “Loyalty, for him, surpassed good judgment,” Craig writes. “It might have surpassed any other moral principle.”

After Robert was out of government, but as the war continued, Craig received a draft notice. During his physical, he was found medically disqualified to serve because of being treated for stomach ulcers for several years. Despite his opposition to the war, not going to Vietnam as a soldier still made him feel overwhelming guilt. To cope, he set off on a motorcycle trip through Central and South America.

Through life-changing experiences during his travels, Craig discovered his love of farming and began a new direction for his life. He is now a businessman, farmer, owner of a walnut farm in Northern California and founder of the Center for Land-Based Learning. By making different choices than his father, Craig has begun to make peace with his family’s complicated legacy. His mother always played a positive role in his life (the memoir is dedicated to her memory) and acted as a “translator” between father and son, but it took years for Craig to understand how dysfunctional his family was with respect to speaking the truth.

Because Our Fathers Lied gives readers a vivid, front-row view of the divisiveness in one very prominent family, and through that family, a view of the national divisiveness that continued long after the Vietnam War.

Many Vietnam War veterans and protesters still believe Robert S. McNamara never fully apologized for his role in the war—including his only son.

The so-called lost generation of American writers and other expatriates began to return home in the late 1920s. By contrast, foreign correspondents became more concerned with international politics and began to venture abroad more often. As a result, what Americans understood about world events in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s came largely from these U.S. newspaper correspondents. In her luminous, extensively researched and beautifully written Last Call at the Hotel Imperial: The Reporters Who Took on a World at War, historian Deborah Cohen brilliantly captures the complicated personal and professional lives of that period’s four most influential journalists, all close friends, who witnessed the rise of fascism and communism, the powder keg of the Middle East after the Balfour Declaration and much more.

Dorothy Thompson saw journalism as her era’s “most representative form of letters,” as the theater or the novel had been for other periods. John Gunther described their profession by saying, “We were scavengers, buzzards, out to get the news, no matter whose wings got clipped.” These two journalists, plus Vincent “Jimmy” Sheean and H.R. Knickerbocker, felt the need to go beyond objective reporting and convey what they thought and felt about the rise of dictators and the strong chance of war, which set their reporting apart. Drawing from abundant primary sources, Cohen brings these four reporters, as well as Gunther’s wife, Frances, vividly to life in Last Call at the Hotel Imperial. Their disagreements, approaches to getting stories, excessive drinking, infidelities, ambitions, achievements and disappointments are covered in detail—as well as their interactions with figures such as Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Mahatma Gandhi, Leon Trotsky, Sigmund Freud, Jawaharlal Nehru and Josef Stalin’s mother.

Sheean’s memoir of his experiences in China and Soviet Russia was a bestseller during his lifetime, as was his biography of Thompson’s marriage to the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Sinclair Lewis. Thompson became a prominent commentator and activist, and at one point she and Eleanor Roosevelt were called the most influential women in the country. Between the 1930s and ’50s, Gunther had more American bestsellers, both fiction and nonfiction, than all but one other author. Knickerbocker was an outstanding reporter but also an alcoholic, and Cohen explores the professional consequences of his condition with sensitivity. He eventually recovered and returned to work, only to be killed in a plane crash in India when he was only 51 years old.

Cohen’s book is a remarkable and exceptionally reader-friendly account of the lives of an extraordinary group of writers and people.

In Last Call at the Hotel Imperial, historian Deborah Cohen brilliantly captures the complicated lives of some of America’s most influential journalists.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in April 1945, World War II was not over. His successor, Harry S. Truman, faced crucial choices both then and in the years to come. Some, such as the custody and use of nuclear weapons, had never been faced by another president. As Truman’s longest serving secretary of state, Dean Acheson, said of that period, “Not only is the future clouded but the present is clouded.” As president, Truman was forced to make quick and risky decisions in a time of war scares, rampant anti-communism, the beginning of the Cold War, stubborn labor strikes and petty scandals. When he left office after almost eight tumultuous years, his approval rating was 31%. More recently, however, historians have begun to consider him in the category of “near great” presidents.

Jeffrey Frank, author of the bestselling Ike and Dick, considers Truman’s achievements and misjudgments in the engaging and insightful The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945–1953. In Frank’s assessment, Truman was “a complicated man concealed behind a mask of down-home forthrightness and folksy language.”

Truman thought the point of being a politician was to improve the lives of his fellow citizens. Overwhelmed at times, he at least made some excellent cabinet choices, such as George Marshall and Acheson. At the beginning of his presidency, Truman needed to conclude the war and assist in the founding of the United Nations. Other milestones followed, including the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, the Berlin airlift, the recognition of the state of Israel, the creation of NATO, the dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur and more.

Truman’s two most controversial decisions, to use the atomic bomb and to enter the Korean War, are covered in detail here. On domestic matters, Truman worked for a national health care program but was ultimately unsuccessful. In 1948 he sent a civil rights program to Congress that included a Fair Employment Practices Act, an anti-poll tax bill, an anti-lynching law and an end to segregated interstate travel, but it also failed to gain enough support.

The first detailed account of the Truman presidency in almost 30 years, The Trials of Harry S. Truman is very readable. Anyone who wants to go behind the scenes of those pivotal years will enjoy this book.

In the first detailed account of the Harry Truman presidency in almost 30 years, Jeffrey Frank engagingly considers Truman’s most controversial decisions.

We remember the 1960s as a time of social protest in the United States, with diverse groups demanding change. But some of those calls for change actually had their roots in the 1950s, led by a few lonely, gifted, stubborn “accidental activists” who would not or could not tolerate the injustices they suffered and witnessed. Journalist and historian James R. Gaines introduces us to some of these courageous individuals in his enlightening, powerful and intimate The Fifties: An Underground History.

One is struck by the differences in these activists’ personal histories, whether their cause was gay rights, racial justice, feminism or environmental justice. Pauli Murray’s experiences as a multiracial Black woman, for example, led to her long legal career making advances for women’s and civil rights, including the argument that finally persuaded the Supreme Court to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sex. She was also the first African American woman to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. By contrast, Fannie Lou Hamer spent most of her life as a sharecropper in the Mississippi Delta. Her civil rights activism didn’t begin until she was 45 years old, but her strong leadership skills and charismatic personality were natural assets to the movement for voting rights. Gilda Lerner had an entirely different origin story. As a young woman, she barely escaped Nazi-occupied Vienna, but she went on to teach the first college-level courses in women’s history in the United States.

Rachel Carson and Norbert Wiener had nothing in common and probably never met. But in their defining works—“she in the living world, he in the electrical, mechanical, and metaphysical one—they converged on the heretical, even subversive idea that the assertion of mastery over the natural world was based on an arrogant fantasy that carried the potential for disaster,” as Gaines writes.

The ’50s were, among other things, a time of fear for many—when raising questions could lead to losing friends or jobs at best, or to jail time, beatings and even death at worst, just for doing what one knew to be right. The activists profiled here didn’t wholly achieve their goals during the “long Fifties”—the social, cultural and political uprising between 1946 and 1963—but they made significant progress that others built on in the future.

Gaines concludes that the people he writes about were authentic rebels, although they didn’t regard themselves as such. This excellent, well-researched and well-written book shows how far America has come and yet how very far we have to go to become the country we often think we are.

James R. Gaines introduces readers to the lonely, gifted, stubborn activists whose calls for change in the 1950s influenced the course of the 20th century.

The Founding Fathers ended their Declaration of Independence with this solemn oath: “We pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” In his superb The Founders’ Fortunes: How Money Shaped the Birth of America, historian and biographer Willard Sterne Randall explores in extensive detail the economic circumstances of the budding republic. It also offers a history of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, among others, as businessmen.

The need for money was a major factor for individuals and governments before the American Revolution, and its importance only increased throughout the war and postwar periods. English settlers had risked their lives and fortunes for many years to establish new colonies, which vastly increased England’s commerce. Yet, facing a huge debt, Parliament sought to gain even more revenue by taxing American colonists. Their opposition sparked the resistance that led to the Revolutionary War.

The 1764 Currency Act had outlawed all colonial currency. Lack of money for Washington’s troops was an ongoing problem during the war, as well as a problem for keeping promises to veterans afterward. When the war ended, the new country was in a depression that prevented them from being financially independent. In addition to these highlights, Randall covers smuggling, war profiteering and privateering, establishing a stable currency, economic diplomacy and much more.

The personal stories of the Founding Fathers’ wealth are especially interesting. For example, Washington and Jefferson were land rich but cash poor, despite their possession of hundreds of enslaved people. Randall explores less well-known figures, as well, such as three patriotic and wealthy men named Robert Morris, Silas Deane and James Wilson. They (and their money) played important roles in winning the war and securing America’s government, but each died in debt.

Randall is a biographer of Washington, Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, so he knows his territory well. The Founders’ Fortunes will hold readers’ interests with its carefully drawn portraits of personalities and insightful analyses of events.

The Founders’ Fortunes will hold readers’ interests with its carefully drawn portraits of personalities and insightful analyses of events.

The iconic images that accompany the conventional narrative of World War II depict American military service as a force for good—like soldiers handing out candy bars to children. But to interpret World War II this way, writes Elizabeth D. Samet, a professor of English at the United States Military Academy at West Point, requires “a selective memory.” Terms such as “the good war” and “the greatest generation” were shaped by “nostalgia, sentimentality, and jingoism” after the fact, causing “the deadliest conflict in human history [to become] something inherently virtuous.”

In her compelling, enlightening and elegantly written Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness, Samet compares popular myths about World War II to the facts. She draws on a broad range of cultural expressions that came about during the war and the years that followed. Especially noteworthy are writings by veterans and other firsthand observers of war, which Samet uses to contrast their ambivalence at the time with how later generations understood the conflict. Legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle, for example, found little romance in war. As he traveled with the troops in 1944, he wrote, “I am sure that in the past two years I have heard soldiers say a thousand times, ‘If only we could have created all this energy for something good.’”

There was an increase in racial violence during those years, as well. In 1942, there were more than 240 riots and other racial incidents across the United States, and segregation was still the official policy of the armed services and in many other places. “One of the chief ironies inherent in the project of bringing democracy to the rest of the world remained the signal failure to practice it at home,” Samet writes.

After the war, violent crime films were the most commercially successful stories featuring veterans. The veteran with amnesia was a staple of postwar noir, even though it didn’t reflect the reality for most veterans who were trying to readjust to civilian life. A 1947 survey of ex-service members found that more than 50% of them said the war “had left them worse off than before.”

This richly rewarding and thought-provoking book splashes World War II history across a broad canvas, with insightful discussions of the works of Homer and Shakespeare and the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. Along the way, Samet convincingly argues that we should reflect on our current relationship to war in the light of wars past. “The way we think and talk about force will influence not only the use of American military might abroad,” she writes, “but also our response to the violence that has increasingly been used as a tool of insurrection at home.”

In her enlightening and elegantly written Looking for the Good War, Elizabeth D. Samet compares popular myths about World War II to the brutal facts of war.

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