Roger Bishop

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Albert Einstein is the best known scientist of the 20th century. As Samuel Graydon explains in his insightful Einstein in Time and Space: A Life in 99 Particles, “Einstein’s fame can get in the way of an objective assessment of his life . . . so it’s easy to fail to see what an astounding life Einstein did actually live.” The author describes his book as “a mosaic biography.” Through it, we see Einstein’s complex personal life and intense public life within the context of his times.

Graydon writes that “Einstein’s finest work was all produced before he was famous, and for much of his early life he was a reasonably obscure figure. It took him nine years to secure an assistant professorship, and even then he wasn’t first choice for the job.” In 1905, while working six days a week at the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, and with family responsibilities, he “wrote twenty-one reviews for an academic journal” and “managed to produce five scientific papers in six months, three of which would eventually transform physics.” For reasons both of differences of opinion about scientific approaches and anti-Semitic prejudice against him, Einstein did not receive the Nobel Prize until 1922, and not for his work on the general theory of relativity, on which his fame was based, but for his discovery of the modern understanding of light as a particle.

Einstein was a nonconformist, not a joiner of groups, indifferent to the opinions of others about him and awards he received. A lifelong pacifist, he was passionate about opposing social injustice and taking moral responsibility for events in the world. But he was also realistic. As Hitler gained power in Germany, Einstein understood the necessity of opposing him with military force. Einstein’s social activism led to accusations that he was a communist, frequently taking on the tone of “gossipy slander.” The FBI kept tabs on him for 20 years, and his file runs to 1,400 pages. The agency accused him of being a “personal courier from Communist Party Headquarters.” Despite these rumors, Einstein lent his name to various causes that worked for a fairer and more peaceful world.

Einstein once wrote that he understood Judaism as a “community of tradition,” rather than as a religion. He became a strong supporter of the Zionist cause and against anti-Semitism and was most helpful in helping many Jewish people emigrate from Europe. When asked if he believed in God, Einstein replied: “I believe in [17th-century philosopher Baruch] Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”

Graydon is the science editor of England’s Times Literary Supplement, and his discussion of Einstein’s work is approachable for those of us who have limited scientific literacy. This engaging account of a legendary figure should be of interest to many.

Samuel Graydon’s new biography of Albert Einstein is an approachable portrayal of the legendary figure’s life and times.
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On February 28, 2003, as President George W. Bush prepared to authorize military action, he turned to his advisers and asked if they had thought enough about “what they hoped to achieve in Iraq.” Plans were made and carried out, but in a short time, the Iraq policy went awry. Historian Melvyn P. Leffler explores the many reasons why in his enlightening, detailed Confronting Saddam Hussein: George W. Bush and the Invasion of Iraq.

After 9/11, the president felt some responsibility for the attacks (there had been warnings not heeded), along with guilt, anger, fear, a sense of political expediency and a need for revenge, the mixture of which led him to declare war on terrorism. After the decision to invade Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda was based, other potential dangers were considered. The president said repeatedly “that his most compelling fear was the prospect of terrorists acquiring weapons of mass destruction from rogue regimes,” Leffler writes. Eventually the Bush administration turned its focus to Saddam Hussein, a ruthless tyrant in Iraq thought by some to have weapons of mass destruction. 

The Bush national security team was often regarded as unified and militant, Leffler explains. But in reality, the members were pragmatists with different approaches and interests who feuded with one another. Leffler shows that there was not a careful assessment of their proposed strategy for dealing with Hussein and Iraq. Hubris was a major factor, and no one person can be blamed. The president acted with the best of intentions, but his advisers who urged caution did so too hesitantly and ineffectively. Contrary to other accounts, Leffler claims that the president was not manipulated by others but was in charge at all times. He merely delegated too much authority and was indifferent to acrimony among his advisers, which adversely affected his policies.

As Leffler writes, President Bush “failed because his information was flawed, his assumptions inaccurate, his priorities imprecise, and his means incommensurate with his evolving ends.” Based on prodigious research, this superb account helps readers understand the many complexities of America’s attempts to keep our citizens safe in the face of very real dangers after 9/11.

President George W. Bush’s Iraq policy quickly went awry, and historian Melvyn P. Leffler’s enlightening, detailed book explores why.
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Four individuals served at the very top of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration from the spring of 1933 until his death in April 1945. They were originally outsiders but became invaluable leaders behind New Deal programs that were crucial to fighting the Depression and bringing victory in World War II. Author Derek Leebaert tells their stories in Unlikely Heroes: Franklin Roosevelt, His Four Lieutenants, and the World They Made

These four people came to Washington with fully formed, practical policy ideas. Frances Perkins, the new secretary of labor, was the first woman to be named to a presidential cabinet. She had worked with FDR when he was the governor of New York, so they had already discussed her plans, including doing away with child labor, before she agreed to join his staff in Washington. Harold Ickes was the secretary of the interior, and he had plans for protecting America’s mountains and forests. Henry Wallace, secretary of agriculture, believed he could achieve parity between farmers’ and industrial workers’ wages. Harry Hopkins wasn’t named to a cabinet position until later, but his extensive professional connections—and his impressive recall of the right people’s names—gave him an ability to get things done as the secretary of commerce. Much later, as World War II was nearing its end, these four continued to be the only top officials who were putting sensible plans for the postwar world into motion.

Perkins turned out to be a particularly effective administrator, making many decisions that were “dynamizing a generation,” Leebaert writes. With a combination of “private persuasion and public advocacy,” she helped open entire work sectors to women and urged women to step into jobs that were vacant while men were away at war. Meanwhile, her child services staff worked with the Army and Navy to provide services for spouses and children of enlisted men. She broke down barriers against employing women over 45, and she did not agree with those who felt the U.S. could trust Josef Stalin.

This well-researched, absorbing narrative reveals what it was like during the FDR administration from four unique perspectives. Unlikely Heroes should be of interest to a wide range of history and biography readers.

Derek Leebaert’s absorbing narrative goes behind the scenes of the FDR administration via the revealing perspectives of four cabinet members.
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John Randolph, a wealthy enslaver from Virginia, member of Congress for almost 30 years, strong defender of states’ rights and prominent public speaker, died in 1833. In the will that he created in 1821, he stipulated the freeing of every enslaved person on his plantation, which would amount to one of the largest manumissions in American history: 383 people. Before this could happen, however, the court system had to deal with the legality of a will Randolph created in 1832 that did not grant those people freedom. To determine the legality of the latter will, the courts had to consider Randolph’s mental state—whether he was “mad” or sane when he prepared it. Meanwhile, the enslaved people whose freedom was on the line waited anxiously for 13 years for a final decision. When that moment finally came, their resettlement and “freedom” in Ohio turned to disappointment and tragedy. Historian and lawyer Gregory May brilliantly captures these extraordinary events with his compelling, meticulously documented and beautifully written A Madman’s Will: John Randolph, Four Hundred Slaves, and the Mirage of Freedom.

Randolph was not only “a political celebrity, but a colorful character of the first order,” May writes—someone who “always craved public attention” and who, over the course of his political career, both defended and denounced slavery. Two of his early wills, prepared in 1819 and 1821, “freed all of Randolph’s slaves and provided funds to resettle them outside Virginia,” May writes. However, Randolph’s final will did not offer anyone freedom but instead indicated that most of the people enslaved on his plantation would be sold.

May includes a fascinating look at the legal and medical framework the courts used to examine Randolph’s sanity after his death. There were many stories about his “peculiarities,” including “fluctuations between excitement and dejection, enthusiasm and gloom,” especially during the last 10 years of his life. A Madman’s Will also includes other interesting descriptions of testimony, scandal and greed, including entertaining depictions of disappointed relatives who had hoped to be heirs.

In the end, May writes, neither Randolph nor the people he enslaved “could escape the underlying pull of prevailing white assumptions about race and social order.” Many white people could not comprehend the plight of people who were enslaved and were indifferent about their predicament. And so when those 383 formerly enslaved Black people arrived in Mercer County in the “free” state of Ohio, they were met by a white mob—and white residents’ violent objections to their settlement continued from there.

May’s account shows that “freedom” of any kind was virtually impossible for Black people in the United States in the early 1800s, no matter how carefully planned. This important book should be of interest to a wide range of readers interested in American history.

In the compelling and beautifully written A Madman’s Will, Gregory May captures the story of 383 enslaved people who waited 13 years to find out whether or not they were free.
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“I was twenty-eight years old when my mother first told me that her father had been imprisoned as a war criminal,” writes longtime New Yorker staff writer Burkhard Bilger. His mother was born in 1935 and grew up in Germany during World War II. She immigrated to the United States, along with Bilger’s father, in 1962, and Bilger heard little talk about his mother’s father while growing up in Oklahoma. But after his mother received a collection of letters from an aunt in Germany in 2005, Bilger decided to find out as much of the truth as he could about his grandfather, Karl Gönner. 

Bilger shares his long journey of historical investigation in his exceptionally well-written and compulsively readable Fatherland: A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets. Official documents, letters, diaries and personal interviews with those who knew Gönner helped Bilger piece together this puzzle.

In 1940, Gönner became a school principal in the village of Bartenheim in occupied Alsace, “the land of three borders: France, Germany, and Switzerland all within a ten-mile radius.” In 1942, he also became the village’s Nazi Party chief, though Gönner would later claim that he refused the position at first. At the heart of Bilger’s book is the question of whether Gönner was a basically good person doing what he had to do to get by during wartime or if he was a committed Nazi monster. Former students and other villagers spoke well of how he had helped them during the war. At the same time, Gönner had been a member of the Nazi Party since 1933 and never seriously challenged the Party’s reign. Bilger did not find any antisemitic remarks in Gönner’s personal writings, but Bilger’s mother said Gönner made such comments at home. As Bilger writes, “There were no little errors in wartime Germany. The choices you made put you on one side of history or the other. Yet the more I learned about my grandfather, the harder he was to categorize.”

After the Germans were defeated, “more than three hundred thousand people [were] charged as war criminals and collaborators in France,” Bilger writes, including Gönner. It took a lot of hard work to convince the court that Gönner was not guilty of certain crimes, including murder. But what of Bilger’s ultimate judgment of Gönner? All of us would like to believe that we would have been strong enough to stand up against barbaric behavior and evil regimes. But as Bilger reflects, life is usually more complicated than we want it to be. Gönner’s life and times, as revealed through Bilger’s elegant and discerningly observed memoir, will challenge and enlighten many thoughtful readers.

In his exceptionally well-written memoir, Burkhard Bilger shares his long journey of historical investigation into his grandfather, who was a Nazi Party chief.
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The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not immediately bring World War II to an end. Bestselling author Evan Thomas (Ike’s Bluff) explains why in his superbly crafted military and diplomatic history Road to Surrender: Three Men and the Countdown to the End of World War II. “This book is a narrative of how the most destructive war in history ended—and very nearly did not,” he writes. “It asks what it was like to be one of the decent, imperfect people who made the decision to use a frighteningly powerful new weapon.” 

The three main figures, two American and one Japanese, were quite different from one another. The only thing they had in common was a desire to end the war. Henry L. Stimson, a Republican lawyer from New York, had been the secretary of state for Herbert Hoover and the secretary of war for William Howard Taft, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman. His responsibilities included making decisions about the use of the atomic bomb. Thomas writes that Stimson “embodied and preached a philosophy that would make the United States, for all its flaws, the world’s essential nation: the belief that American foreign policy . . . should balance humanitarian and ethical values with cold-eyed power used in the national interest.”

The other American was General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, a West Point graduate who had been commander of strategic bombing in Europe before he was assigned the same responsibility in the Pacific. He was initially opposed to using the atomic bomb, but when the Japanese military continued to resist surrendering, he recommended dropping a third atomic bomb on Tokyo. Throughout his career, he remained deeply disturbed about the devastation and loss of life caused by these dreadful bombs.

The third man, career diplomat Shigenori Togo, became Japan’s foreign minister in 1941 and was very much against going to war with the United States. He left office for several years but returned in 1945 to take on a virtually impossible task: to push his military-led government toward surrender. As Thomas describes Japan’s predicament in 1945, “Some of the men now running the Japanese government want to bring the war to an end, but in a society where even the word surrender is forbidden, they cannot admit it.”

Whether the A-bomb should have been used at all remains a controversial subject. Thomas effectively shows, with meticulous scholarship, that even after two atomic bombs had been dropped, the most influential military leaders in Japan insisted on continuing to fight. “Had Japan fought on,” he writes, “likely many more people would have died, possibly millions more, in Asia as well as Japan.”

Drawing on a wide range of sources, including the primary figures’ diaries, Thomas makes the period come vividly alive. This moving account of three men of peace who had to make life or death decisions will interest history lovers everywhere.

Contrary to popular belief, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not immediately bring World War II to an end. In his new book, Evan Thomas explains why.
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Historian Blair LM Kelley writes, “Our national mythos leaves little room for Black workers, or to glean any lessons from their histories. . . . Never mind that from slavery to the present, Black workers have been essential to the nation’s productivity, and indeed . . . to its basic functioning.” The director of the Center for the Study of the American South and co-director of the Southern Futures initiative at the University of North Carolina, Kelley gives a sweeping narrative of 200 years of American history in her engaging and well-documented Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class

Kelley also uses events in the lives of some of her ancestors to tell parts of the larger story. The overwhelming impression throughout is of great tragedy combined with an amazing abundance of courage and resourcefulness in the face of impossible barriers. The author gives primary attention to “a critical era, after southern Emancipation and into the early twentieth century, when the first generations of Black working people carved out a world for themselves.”

Readers will especially learn about Black workers who united to gain political influence. For example, “Washerwomen, or laundresses, occupied a central place in Black life, history, and culture,” Kelley writes. Their work was hard and required great skill. After the Civil War, many laundresses had the independence to work alone and were able to spend more time with their children. They were also able to use their earnings to help support their families and communities by buying houses, building churches and opening businesses—and some were able to organize to improve their situations. In 1881, for example, laundresses in Atlanta, Georgia, and Charlotte, North Carolina, went on strike for better pay and working conditions. Some washerwomen even joined labor protests for other industries, such as the successful streetcar boycott in Richmond, Virginia, in 1904.

Kelley also traces the development and importance of the Pullman porters, Black men who performed a variety of services for railway passengers beginning in 1867. The author writes of their significance, “Easily the most well-traveled Black folks in America, the Pullman porters provided assistance to people seeking opportunity in the North and West, connecting porters’ home folks with jobs, and offering their knowledge about the cities where migrants planned to settle. . . . They bore witness to the violence of lynchings and racial massacres, and also carried copies of Northern Black newspapers to sell to Black residents in the South.”

There is so much more here to interest history lovers. This fine book illuminates the intelligence, sense of community, hard work (often done under deplorable conditions) and resilience of Black workers, who have made crucial contributions to American history.

Black Folk illuminates the intelligence, sense of community, hard work, resilience and courage of the Black working class, whose members have made crucial contributions to American history.
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Four extraordinary women, with quite different and often controversial ideas, are the subjects of Wolfram Eilenberger’s masterfully researched and beautifully written The Visionaries: Arendt, Beauvoir, Rand, Weil, and the Power of Philosophy in Dark Times. Eilenberger’s much praised Time of the Magicians (2020) covered the lives of Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ernst Cassirer and Walter Benjamin. Like that work, The Visionaries is a superb combination of biography, history and philosophy for general readers, this time covering the period from 1933 to 1943 and the impact of World War II on four writers’ lives. Each of these women recognized that “there was something fundamentally wrong with [the] world—and with the people in it,” Wilenberger writes. “But what exactly could it be? And how, in the early 1930s, was it possible for an individual to heal that increasingly oppressive malaise?”

Hannah Arendt left her native Germany in 1933 for France, where she helped others immigrate to Palestine, before coming to the U.S. to write and publish. Arendt wrote that she would like to identify with “the tradition of German-language writing and thought,” but she was denied the chance because she was Jewish. “Certain people are so exposed in their own lives that they become junction points and concrete objectifications of life,” she wrote, and indeed she became one such person. As a result, Arendt had a lifelong concern for human rights, and her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, is considered a classic.

Ayn Rand immigrated from Russia to the United States in 1926 and experienced ups and downs as a writer, including a hit Broadway play. “From her earliest youth she had known exactly why she was in the world: to forge her own happiness in life and to create stories that showed the world as it should be—and not as it unfortunately was,” Wilenberger writes. Rand became a cultural icon with novels like The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged and other works.

Simone Weil left France to work as a journalist and social activist. Weil felt that the only definite way out of the crisis of their time was to return to the “great source texts of humanity,” Wilenberger writes. Throughout her lifetime, Weil engaged with the works of Homer and Plato, the Bhagavad Gita, the Stoics and Christian writers, and her 1949 book, The Need for Roots, continues to be read today.

Simone de Beauvoir remained in France as a teacher, novelist and essayist. Within a year after the German occupation of Paris, Beauvoir wrote, “I was at last prepared to admit that my life was not a story of my own telling, but a compromise between myself and the world at large.” With the publication in 1949 of The Second Sex, a founding document of modern feminism, Beauvoir became an international celebrity.

Wilenberger’s engaging book will enlighten and entertain—in the best sense—many thoughtful readers.

The Visionaries delves into the controversial ideas of Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Ayn Rand and Simone Weil with a superb combination of biography, history and philosophy.
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Harvard historian Jill Lepore says that she “never set out to study history. I only ever set out to write. The history I read bugged me.” Now she pursues both history and writing with great intelligence, boundless curiosity, a relentless pursuit of facts and concern about very important subjects. Her books include the bestselling These Truths: A History of the United States and Bancroft Prize-winning The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity. Since 2005, she has also been a staff writer at The New Yorker where most of the essays in her dazzling new collection The Deadline originally appeared.

Many of these essays concern the relationship between what has happened in the past and how it relates to the present. In “Battleground America,” Lepore discusses the complicated history of the Second Amendment while in “The Riot Report,” she focuses on the numerous special commission reports that have been published over the years and how little has come from them.

In “Drafted,” an essay published last year, Lepore writes: “Beginning in the summer of 2022, women in about half of the United States may be breaking the law if they decide to end a pregnancy. This will be, in large part, because Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito appears to have been surprised that there is so little written about abortion in a four-thousand-word document crafted by fifty-five men in 1787. . . . There is nothing in that document about women at all. Most consequentially, there is nothing in that document—or in the circumstances under which it was written—that suggests its authors imagined women as part of the political community.” Of course, “Legally, most women did not exist as persons.”

Lepore considers this while also spending time in other essays investigating such varied topics as why King John affixed his seal to what became known as the Magna Carta, whether mission statements for organizations are just “baloney” and the history of the term “burnout.” Lepore went to both Republican and Democratic conventions in 2016 and shares her impressions. There are perceptive discussions of the lives and ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft, Rachel Carson, Eugene Debs and Herman Melville. Whether the subject is technology, law, culture, bicycling or children, her insights hold our attention. Overall, this is an outstanding collection, sure to be enjoyed by a wide range of readers.

Whether the subject is technology, law, culture, bicycling or children, historian Jill Lepore’s first essay collection holds our attention.
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In his sweeping, extensively documented and elegantly written Before the Movement: The Hidden History of Black Civil Rights (Liveright, $35, 9781324093107), Dylan C. Penningroth, a professor of law and history at the University of California, Berkeley, gives us a new way to look at Black lives throughout American history. Penningroth explores Black people’s everyday experiences with the law in depth. “The basic premise of this book is that Black people’s lives are worth studying in themselves,” he writes.  

Tracing the Black freedom struggle from the last years of slavery through the Reconstruction and Jim Crow periods and “the subsequent forty years when battles over the scope and meaning of civil rights broke out again on the national stage,” Penningroth contends that “we cannot understand Black legal lives after slavery without first examining Black legal lives during slavery.” Based on Penningroth’s extraordinary research conducted from records in the basements of county courthouses, we learn how Black people, following the end of the Civil War, dealt with owning property, marriage and divorce, conducting business and church matters and much more. He refutes the idea that Black people knew little about the law. “White people recognized Black rights,” he writes, “because life’s ordinary business could not go on if whites could not make contracts and convey property to Black people.”    

We read about the rise of Black property owners from Reconstruction to the depths of Jim Crow. Penningroth notes that “Five years after the Civil War ended, 4.8 percent of the South’s Black families, about 43,000, owned real estate. Over the next fifteen years, that figure steadily rose.” This happened despite virtually no help from the government and the passing of so-called Black Codes that severely restricted the rights of Black people in some Southern states..

The meaning of “civil rights” has changed through the years. In 1866, it meant contract and property rights and the ability to take a case to court. By 1954, the term had come to refer to racial discrimination at work and school and the right to vote. More recently, Penningroth writes, “the grassroots wanted much more than some federal laws protecting their right to vote, to patronize restaurants, and to attend integrated schools. They wanted to remake American democracy from the ground up.”

An important book full of insight into issues and personalities, Before the Movement should be of interest to anyone who wants to better understand American history.    

Dylan C. Penningroth’s history of Black Americans’ experiences with U.S. law is sweeping, extensively documented and elegantly written.
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As George Orwell observed, “Who controls the past controls the future.” And without a proper understanding of the events that make up the past, we may be easily misled. In Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past, prominent historians offer keenly insightful essays that reveal the true and often complex history of America. Edited by Princeton University historians Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, the book’s chapters range from “American Exceptionalism” and “Vanishing Indians” to “Confederate Monuments” and “Voter Fraud.”

Contributor David A. Bell points out that “the stories that nations tell themselves . . . change over time, and America has had a bewildering and contradictory plethora of them.” For example, Erika Lee discusses the complex realities and deep roots of the “they keep coming” immigration myth, which asserts that the federal government won’t stop the supposed millions of people who enter the country without documentation. Sarah Churchwell shows how “America First has never been—and was never intended to be—a simple statement of patriotic self-interest.” Glenda Gilmore challenges the myth that the civil rights demonstrations from 1955 to 1968 were significantly different from those that took place during the 1890s through the 1950s.

Michael Kazin relates the 1825 visit of Robert Owen, a rich manufacturer from Wales, who delivered two addresses to joint sessions of Congress. The audience included several Supreme Court justices, as well as outgoing president James Monroe and incoming president John Quincy Adams. Owen proposed the establishment of a system of society based on justice and kindness. He condemned America’s economic system as selfish and inhumane, and he and his ideas were treated with great respect. Owen called his proposal “socialism.” As Kazin writes, “Their curiosity was a sign that the market system, for all its promise of plenty, was not yet a settled reality defended by all men of wealth and standing.”

The book’s editors are aware that they haven’t covered every myth in U.S. history, but these essays still succeed in bringing important facts to our current historical debates. The footnotes alone make great reading. Myth America is an important step toward a better understanding of our history.

In Myth America, prominent historians challenge strongly held myths about our country’s history and reveal the more complex truth.
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How important are individuals in the shaping of history? Twentieth-century Europeans knew leaders whose decisions, good or ill, transformed their countries, the continent and, in some cases, the world. Ian Kershaw, one of our leading historians of the period, focuses on 12 of them in his enlightening and stimulating Personality and Power: Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe. They range from the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to Helmut Kohl, chancellor of West Germany in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. We learn of the personality traits and historical preconditions that brought each person to power, and Kershaw provides examples of how that power was used and an assessment of each leader’s legacy.

War was the most important enabler of power in the 20th century. Without World War I, the chances of Lenin, Josef Stalin, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler becoming leaders would have been virtually zero. Without World War II, it is unlikely that Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle or Josip Broz Tito would have led their countries. Of the 12 figures in Personality and Power, only Konrad Adenauer, Mikhail Gorbachev and Kohl were never war leaders. (Francisco Franco had the Spanish Civil War, and Margaret Thatcher the war in the Falklands.)

Each leader profiled here had a strong sense of self, a relentless will to succeed and the ability to get complete loyalty from followers. Some have dark legacies, such as Hitler with the Holocaust and Lenin with communism, that still endure. Other legacies are more mixed. Between 1940 and 1945, probably no European democracy had a leader with more power than Winston Churchill. He was somewhat of a political failure before that, and his later return as prime minister from 1951 to 1955 was not a great success. But his example during the war continues to inspire people today. Similarly, although Gorbachev’s years in power were few, it is unlikely that anyone else could have instigated and pursued the policies that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Leadership changed, however, and his policies were reversed.

These excellent in-depth profiles of major figures and their influence on millions of people help us better understand why the world is as it is today.

Ian Kershaw’s excellent in-depth profiles of 12 major leaders from 20th-century Europe help us better understand why the world is as it is today.
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From 1932 to 1942, Joseph C. Grew served as the United States ambassador to Japan, where he was devoted to cultivating peace between the two countries. Despite his extraordinary efforts, he left the post in 1942 following six months of internment in the Tokyo embassy after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Author Steve Kemper draws on a wide range of sources, including Grew’s memoirs and diary, diplomatic messages and Japanese accounts of events, as he recounts the lead-up to America’s involvement in World War II in Our Man in Tokyo: An American Ambassador and the Countdown to Pearl Harbor.

Grew was an unlikely career diplomat. His background—Boston, Groton, Harvard—indicated a different path, perhaps a career in business or banking. But he sought adventure. On his way to assume new duties in Tokyo, he wrote in his diary that of all his 14 posts, Japan “promises to be the most adventurous of all.”

Kemper takes readers behind the scenes to see the complex realities that Grew coped with on a daily basis. He tried to alert America’s leaders to the challenges of Japan’s increasing militarism and fervent nationalism while doing what he could to keep their foreign policy in check. Where he was open-minded and pragmatic, his boss, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, had a fundamental distrust of Japan. Grew strongly protested Japan’s many devastating acts against Americans, but he was also concerned by the ignorance of American isolationists and pacifists at home who saw the U.S. as a warmonger. 

On January 27, 1941, long before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the ambassador first heard the rumor that if the Japanese government broke with the United States, it would plan a surprise mass attack. He passed that word along to the U.S. State Department—however, the Navy had already studied the possibility of a Pearl Harbor attack and considered it unlikely.

Grew’s tireless efforts to avert war with Japan demonstrate both the value and the limitations of any one person in international power politics. This enlightening and well-written history should be of interest to a wide range of readers.

Steve Kemper’s splendid portrait of the American ambassador to Japan during the lead-up to World War II will be of interest to a wide range of history lovers.

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