Roger Bishop

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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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Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Those of us who love peace must organize as effectively as the war hawks.” James Lawson, a key figure in developing the nonviolent tactics of the civil rights movement, said, “Protracted struggle is a moral struggle that is like warfare, moral warfare.” With these war analogies in mind, Pulitzer Prize winner and war historian Thomas E. Ricks gives us a new way to understand the movement in his illuminating, engrossing, deeply researched and vividly written Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954–1968.

Segregation was deeply rooted in midcentury America, and many white people were willing to go to extremes to preserve it. Thousands of the civil rights movement’s participants were jailed, many died, and others lived with fears of being bombed, shot, beaten and arrested. In response to these threats, strategic thinking, decision making, recruiting, training and communications all became crucial to the movement’s success, just like in the military. Self-discipline provided the movement’s foundation, along with careful planning and an understanding that the final step must be reconciliation.

By drawing connections like these, Ricks argues that the civil rights movement was militant from the beginning, even though it was nonviolent. As a strategy, nonviolence was not passive resistance; instead, it was an aggressive way to demonstrate “superior skills in resisting.” And because it was so different from militant violence, it confused the foe.

Each location where nonviolent actions took place presented unique challenges, and the movement’s leaders planned their approaches carefully. The bus boycott in Montgomery, sit-ins in Nashville, demonstrations in Birmingham and Selma, the March on Washington and other actions were not, for the most part, spontaneous. Reporters and television studios were invited to capture events so the public could read about, see and hear what was happening as Black citizens demanded to be treated as equal members of American society.

King and John Lewis are major figures in the book, but we also learn about the crucial roles played by other important strategists such as Diane Nash and James Bevel. If you want to understand how the people of the civil rights movement went about changing the United States in the 1950s and ’60s, this is the book to read.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas E. Ricks gives us a new way to understand the civil rights movement in his illuminating Waging a Good War.
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Mark Twain wrote that “Jay Gould was the mightiest disaster which has ever befallen this country. The people had desired money before his day, but he taught them to fall down and worship it.” Gould’s fellow Gilded Age robber barons were more positive. Cornelius Vanderbilt called him “the smartest man in America,” and John D. Rockefeller said Gould had the “best head for business” of anyone. In American Rascal: How Jay Gould Built Wall Street’s Biggest Fortune, Greg Steinmetz briskly tells financier and railroad leader Gould’s rags-to-riches story and gives a nuanced view of this man of contradictions and why he matters.

Gould originally made his money through various ventures in New York. However, when the Civil War ended, railroads became the most important and powerful industry in the country, and thus the focus of Gould’s business dealings. By investing in various railroads, Gould did as much as anyone at the time to generate economic growth and steer the country toward becoming a world power. As the owner and manager of multiple railroads, Gould was one of the largest employers in the country and made rail travel faster, safer and more comfortable. At the same time, he bribed politicians and used deception to ruthlessly manipulate competitors.

The qualities Gould demonstrated in taking control of the Erie Railroad illustrate his strengths throughout his career: “his brilliance as a financial strategist, his deep understanding of law, a surprising grasp of human nature, and a mastery of political reality,” as Steinmetz writes. Above all, Gould was a pragmatist. He could be a visionary, but only when it didn’t clash with his primary objective, which was to make as much money as he could for himself.

Outside of work, Gould seemed to be less ruthless. Most evenings, he left his office to have dinner with his wife and six children and to read in his library. He did not drink alcohol. He loved flowers, owned the largest greenhouse in the country and cultivated a new breed of orchids. Despite their wealth, he and his family were not part of the city’s social aristocracy. “I have the disadvantage of not being sociable,” he once said.

Steinmetz’s fast-moving and eminently readable biography shows how Gould thrived within the context of his times but also that his greed led to necessary reforms for the health of the country’s economy.

In American Rascal, Greg Steinmetz tells robber baron Jay Gould’s rags-to-riches story and gives a nuanced view of why he matters to American history.
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Since 1973, when President Richard Nixon and Congress created the all-volunteer force as an alternative to conscripted military service, there has been a division between the American public and the military. Less than one-half of 1% of our population currently serves on active duty. And as the public has watched the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue on for years after 9/11, they have become more uncertain than ever about U.S. missions.

But active duty and retired military personnel have become more uncertain too. In an enlightening new book, Paths of Dissent: Soldiers Speak Out Against America’s Misguided Wars, a diverse group of veterans who volunteered and served in those wars tell us what they saw, did and learned. In these original essays, selected by co-editors Andrew Bacevich and Daniel A. Sjursen for their candor and eloquence, the contributors share their reasons for deciding to serve, why they became disillusioned and why they now feel the need to speak out about “military policies that they deem ill advised, illegal, or morally unconscionable.”

Erik Edstrom, a West Point graduate, was an infantry platoon leader in Afghanistan, where he “saw the systematic dehumanization and devaluation of Afghan lives on a regular basis. . . . It’s one of America’s deepest ironies: in efforts to ‘prevent terrorism’ in our country, we commit far larger acts of terrorism elsewhere,” he writes. Joy Damiani was an enlisted public affairs specialist who served two tours in Iraq. “According to the Army’s official narrative,” she writes, “the war was always in the process of being won. There were never any mistakes, never any defeats, and certainly never any failures.” Buddhika Jayamaha was an airborne infantryman in Iraq. He and many others “felt that the extreme hubris of American politicians and the commentariat was responsible for the mess in Iraq.”

Bacevich, who served for 23 years in the Army, including in Vietnam, writes that “genuine military dissent is patriotic.” Any citizen who wants to better understand our country’s current military entrapments will want to read this book.

In 17 original essays, U.S. veterans share their reasons for deciding to serve, why they became disillusioned with the military and why they now feel the need to speak out against its misguided policies.
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“The conception of political equality from the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, to the Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Nineteenth Amendments can mean only one thing—one person, one vote,” wrote Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas in 1963. It seems simple enough. However, as we learn in fascinating and depressing detail from Nick Seabrook’s wide-ranging history, One Person, One Vote, when politicians intentionally draw boundaries for partisan advantage, politicians pick their voters rather than voters picking politicians.

The practice known today as gerrymandering began long before the term first appeared in 1812, when Governor Elbridge Gerry (pronounced with a hard G) of Massachusetts signed a bill that seriously distorted voting districts for political purposes. He was not directly involved in preparing the legislation and found it distasteful, but his name nonetheless became attached to it. Gerry later served as vice president under James Madison. Earlier in Madison’s career, Patrick Henry had used the tactic in an unsuccessful attempt to keep Madison from being elected to the House of Representatives. If Madison had lost the election, we might not have his Bill of Rights.

Prior to the 1970s, when the constitutional mandate to redistrict every 10 years went into effect, gerrymandering was the exception rather than the norm. Politicians only used this tactic when it was necessary or expedient, which was rare—especially since the detailed election data and computer technology that has become so crucial to modern election strategy was not yet available.

Those who benefit from gerrymandering are determined not to lose their advantage. Even the Supreme Court has failed to address the harms of the practice. On three separate occasions, challenges to the most pervasive partisan gerrymanders of the 21st century have come before the Supreme Court, but reformers came away disappointed. Instead, change has almost always come from concerned citizens who convinced elected officials to take on the issue.

Seabrook’s important book should be of interest to every citizen who wants to better understand what goes on behind the scenes as political parties seek power.

Nick Seabrook’s One Person, One Vote should be read by every citizen who wants to understand what goes on behind the scenes as political parties seek power.
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The role Pope Pius XII played during World War II has long been a subject of controversy. Under great pressure to align himself with the Allies or Axis powers, he chose silence and diplomatic neutrality. Some saw him as a heroic champion of the oppressed. Others thought he turned a blind eye to the killing of Jews and other vulnerable populations and did not use his moral authority to work for peace. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David I. Kertzer explores the truth of how Pius XII handled this situation with great skill, combining extraordinary documentation and elegant writing, in The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler.

Early in his papacy, which began in 1939, Pius XII decided to tread a careful path. Once World War II began, his public pronouncements were crafted so that each side could interpret them as supporting their cause. The pope often said, for example, that true peace required justice—a familiar theme to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, who complained that the Treaty of Versailles was not a true peace because it was unjust. The pope insisted it was his role to attend to spiritual, not political, matters. Using this excuse, he didn’t criticize Italy’s anti-Jewish racial laws. He didn’t denounce totalitarian states, until the only one left was the Soviet Union. In his first speech after the war, he emphasized the Nazi regime’s campaign against the Catholic Church and didn’t make any mention of the Nazis’ extermination of European Jews nor Italy’s part in the Axis cause.

The Vatican archives of this period were sealed when Pius XII died in 1958, but they became available to researchers in March 2020. This book is based on many sources but is the first to take advantage of these previously unexplored materials. (Among their revelations are secret negotiations between the pope and Hitler.) Kertzer believes, based on this new evidence, that “Pius XII saw his primary responsibility to be the protection of the institutional church, its property, its prerogatives, and its ability to fulfill its mission as he saw it.” But Pius XII was also aware that, to many people, he failed to provide courageous moral leadership, which Kertzer outlines in gripping detail in his outstanding book.

David I. Kertzer explores the role Pope Pius XII played in WWII with great skill, extraordinary documentation and elegant writing.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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