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All American History Coverage

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.

In Of Blood and Sweat: Black Lives and the Making of White Power and Wealth, Clyde W. Ford confronts readers with a difficult truth about the current state of American affairs: Our politics, economy and social structure are inextricably linked to the enslavement of Black people. The freight trains and trucks that carry goods across the country follow the rail lines and roads built by enslaved people. Our insurance companies, banks and stock exchanges—in both the North and the South—are direct descendants of the institutions that financed and protected the slave trade and commodities produced with slave labor. Our Constitution is the result of compromises with slave-holding states, ensuring through the three-fifths clause, the Fugitive Slave Clause and the Electoral College that power remained in the hands of powerful white men and that slavery continued to flourish.

Ford wants readers to realize the lasting and severe harm that slavery has done to our country on both an intellectual level and a visceral, emotional one. There is no lack of evidence to support his argument, and his book is very well researched and documented. But unlike histories that are so loaded with documents, statistics and official accounts of proceedings that they numb the reader, transforming the tragedy of the past into mere abstraction, Of Blood and Sweat adroitly avoids these pitfalls. Instead, Ford weaves the stories of real people who lived through these times into his narrative, making the information feel immediate and alive. The author of 13 fiction and nonfiction books, including the memoir Think Black, Ford brings to life Antoney and Isabell, an Angolan couple who were among the first enslaved Africans brought to Virginia in 1619; Briton Hammon, an enslaved man whose New England owner permitted him to become a sailor; S.G.W. Dill, a white former Confederate soldier who became a passionate advocate for equality—and was murdered for it by white supremacists; and countless others, the sinners and the sinned against, whose lives illuminate not only what happened but why.

More importantly, Ford makes a clear case that the past is never over. The wounds inflicted by slavery have never healed, and he argues that they will continue to harm our country until we deal with them honestly. For many Americans, reading Of Blood and Sweat will be an excellent first step in that process.

Some histories are so loaded with documents and statistics that they numb the reader, but Clyde W. Ford’s Of Blood and Sweat feels immediate and alive.

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.

Civil War scholar Carole Emberton titled this insightful study of “freedom’s charter generation,” the first group of enslaved people to be emancipated in 1865, after a soothing quote from the Bible (Psalm 119:45). But she is clear: There was nothing easy about this walk away from slavery for the Black Americans of the Jim Crow South. Their stories, gathered in interviews by the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression, are carefully retold in To Walk About in Freedom: The Long Emancipation of Priscilla Joyner, a necessary, judicious correction to previously published accounts.

A project funded under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the FWP sent mostly white interviewers across the South to record the stories of formerly enslaved people who were still living. But before publication, the interviews underwent heavy editing to make them align with a more nostalgic vision of the South’s past. It would take Sterling Brown, a Black poet and FWP leader, to insist on authenticity and restore the interviewees’ words. Almost a century later, here they are.

Emberton’s book especially focuses on one woman, Priscilla Joyner, who told her life story to the FWP. Born in 1858, Joyner was never formally enslaved, yet her struggle to be free lasted for her entire lifetime. After the Civil War, former slaveholders did their best to subvert and sabotage the new, fragile laws of Reconstruction. Shocked when the people they had enslaved walked away without looking back, and fearful of a new balance of power, they thwarted Black voting rights and menaced teachers at newly opened schools—or simply burned the schools down.

Joyner experienced much of this hostility firsthand. The white woman who called herself Joyner’s mother did little to nurture or protect her. Joyner’s darker skin enraged her white siblings, who tormented her until, as a teenager, she was abruptly given away to a Black family. Within that community, Joyner found her people, went to school for the first time, wore ribbons in her hair and dresses that fit, and fell in love. Yet she and her family continued to struggle against inequities in pay, health care, education and professional opportunities.

Emberton’s attention to detail, whether she’s describing an inept FWP interviewer, an intimidated storyteller or the heavy-handed project editor, succeeds in debunking any nostalgia attached to the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy.

Carole Emberton’s insightful study of the first group of enslaved people to be emancipated is a necessary, judicious correction to Confederate nostalgia.

When then-California Senator Kamala Harris accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for vice president of the United States, she spoke of a long history of inspiring women, including the impoverished Mississippi sharecropper-turned-human rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. “We’re not often taught their stories, but as Americans, we all stand on their shoulders,” Harris said. Historian Keisha N. Blain’s extensively researched chronicle Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America ensures that Hamer’s story—and her lessons for activists—will live on.

The granddaughter of enslaved people and the youngest of 20 children growing up on a plantation in the Jim Crow South, Hamer’s formal education ended in the sixth grade. Her parents needed her to pick cotton in order to put food on the table. In 1962, at age 44, Hamer attended a meeting organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and learned for the first time that she had a constitutional right to vote.

After attempting to exercise that right got her thrown off the plantation, Hamer began organizing voter education workshops and registration drives. Her family became targets of violence, her husband and daughter were arrested and jailed, and their home was invaded. Eventually her work with SNCC activists almost cost Hamer her life: Jailed after a voter workshop in Winona, Mississippi, she took a beating that left her with kidney damage and a blood clot in one eye.

Undeterred, Hamer went on to challenge the all-white Mississippi delegates at the 1964 Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, arguing that the delegation couldn’t represent the state when Black Democrats had been excluded from the selection process. President Lyndon Johnson held an impromptu press conference to prevent television coverage of her graphic testimony, in which she detailed her beating, but it aired anyway and sparked outrage. Eventually the credentials committee offered the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which included white and Black people, two at-large seats with no voting power. Hamer’s response: “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats.” Four years later, she would become a member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation.

With SNCC, Hamer helped organize the legendary Freedom Summer in 1964 and later launched the Freedom Farm Cooperative to tackle rural poverty. She fought for inclusion in the women’s movement, and until her death in 1977, she remained strident about the global need to liberate all marginalized groups seeking political and economic justice. As readers take in Hamer’s life story throughout this rallying cry of a book, they will find that her message still resounds today: “You are not free whether you are white or black, until I am free.”

Historian Keisha N. Blain’s extensively researched chronicle ensures that Fannie Lou Hamer’s story—and her lessons for activists—will live on.

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