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In 1880, the chief of the Prussian General Staff wrote, “Eternal peace is a dream—and hardly a beautiful one. . . . War is part of the world order that God ordained.” Many have disagreed with this statement and offered various alternatives, from abolishing war completely to conducting it in a more humane way. In his enlightening and provocative Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and history at Yale, offers “an antiwar history of the laws of war” that traces America’s journey, over the last century and a half, toward the disturbing place we now find ourselves: a period of endless war.

Moyn discusses many notable individuals, causes and arguments within this history, including the founding of the Red Cross despite Leo Tolstoy’s strong opposition. The peace efforts of an Austrian noblewoman named Bertha von Suttner, especially through her book Lay Down Your Arms in 1889, stand out as well. Moyn writes, “Before World War I, no document of Western civilization did more to turn what had been a crackpot and marginal call for an end to endless war into a mainstream cause.” In 1905, von Suttner became the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Moyn argues that the increased use of “unmanned aerial vehicles” (armed drones) and U.S. Special Forces in the modern era makes belligerency more humane but augurs for a grim future. In Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize address in 2009, he said, “We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.” Instead, Obama emphasized a commitment to global justice and international law and insisted on humane constraints—which included the use of drones. He sanctioned the use of armed drones more times in his first year in office than George W. Bush did in eight years. By the time Obama left office, drones had struck almost 10 times more than under his predecessor, with thousands killed. Special Forces units were engaged in fighting in at least 13 countries during the last year of Obama’s presidency, and the same approach continued during the Trump years.

This sweeping and relevant book is a vital look at how foreign policy should be conducted ethically in the face of America’s endless wars.

In his enlightening and provocative book, Samuel Moyn traces the history of America’s disturbing journey toward a period of endless war.

The dream of independence, not union, inspired the early European settlers of what is now the United States to leave their old world for a new one. The colonies were founded for different reasons, had different economies and pursued distinctively different interests. Race, religion, class, regional resentment and culture have always divided us. Our most powerful myth, that the many melded into one, has never been true. In his engaging and enlightening Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union, journalist and historian Richard Kreitner explores this hidden thread of disunion in a fresh, well-documented and persuasive way, focusing on four distinct eras during which some sought to break away from the larger Union. 

Consider the following narrative: The American Revolution was a spontaneous response to colonists’ realization that they could not separately fight the British Empire and win. The creation of the U.S. was a means to an end, not an end in itself. The drafting and ratification of the Constitution were done in secret in the midst of secessionist movements in the West and insurrection in the East. The Founding Fathers were careful to protect their own interests, including their interest in owning enslaved people.

The first popular disunion movement in our history developed in the North when the Federalists, out of power during the Jefferson presidency, discussed leaving. The War of 1812 led to the Hartford Convention and more secession talk. There was also Aaron Burr’s scheme to form a new Western empire.

For years, Southerners cared more about continuing slavery than Northerners did about stopping it, until the abolitionist movement changed politics. Northern resentment boiled over after years of Southern intimidation. In this way, the Civil War could be seen as a Northern resistance movement after years of compromises with the South to try and hold the Union together. 

There is so much more in this provocative and often surprising book, including the ways that secessionist movements have continued into the present. Kreitner challenges readers to rethink what the Union means to us and how we can help it live up to its highest ideals. Reading Break It Up is an excellent place to start.

The dream of independence, not union, inspired the early European settlers of what is now the United States to leave their old world for a new one. The colonies were founded for different reasons, had different economies and pursued distinctively different interests. Race, religion, class, regional resentment and culture have always divided us. Our most […]

Anyone looking for a compact, highly readable history of the American political movement known as populism, and the determined efforts from both right and left to squelch it, will enjoy prominent progressive journalist Thomas Frank’s The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism.

Frank (What’s the Matter With Kansas?) describes how, despite populism’s brief formal life—from the founding of the People’s Party in 1891 to the crushing defeat of Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1896—its ideals have persisted through more than a century of American political history. Their influence, as he describes it, reached its zenith during the New Deal when Franklin Delano Roosevelt, while not expressly invoking any populist lineage, nonetheless “talked constantly about the urgent need to take power away from economic elites and return it to the average American.”

But after World War II, as Frank points out in perhaps the most intriguing portion of his argument, the opposition to populism subtly shifted from obvious enemies, like the robber barons of the Gilded Age, to the “technocratic, elite liberalism” that came to dominate the Democratic Party. In the hands of these professionals and intellectuals, populism became a code word for “demagoguery and intolerance,” as their interests diverged from those of the working class.

The disdain of this “highly educated leadership class” for the populist impulse turned out, in Frank’s candid assessment, to be nothing less than a “liberal folly,” opening the door for what he calls the “phony populism of the right” that flourished in the Republican Party beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. It climaxed in Donald Trump’s unlikely victory in 2016, when a candidate whose true agenda would have made William McKinley smile successfully harnessed popular hostility to elites and rode it into the White House.

Credit goes to Frank for this admirable effort to reclaim the noblest parts of the populist legacy and make them relevant for contemporary Americans, but there’s good reason to doubt we’ll see this platform realized soon, no matter who prevails in November 2020.

Anyone looking for a compact, highly readable history of the American political movement known as populism, and the determined efforts from both right and left to squelch it, will enjoy prominent progressive journalist Thomas Frank’s The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism.

America has become more unequal since the 1960s. The middle class has shrunk, schools are more segregated, and mass incarceration has devastated African American and Latinx communities. Meanwhile, wealthy individuals and corporations have an outsize say in elections, resulting in lower taxes, more favorable legislation and preferential treatment from government agencies. What is not well known, however, is the role the Supreme Court has played in creating these inequities.

The Supreme Court is often seen as the defender of the underdog. Cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Miranda v. Arizona seemed to guarantee all Americans equal rights and due process under the law. However, as Adam Cohen meticulously documents in Supreme Inequality, certain justices on the Supreme Court have worked to not only erode the rights of the poor and middle class but also to extend the interests of the rich. In many ways, Cohen argues, the court is the author of the increased inequality in American society, and of that inequality’s many consequences.

Cohen is uniquely qualified to write this book. After graduating from Harvard Law, where he was the editor of the Harvard Law Review, he worked at the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU. He then pursued a career in journalism, eventually joining the editorial board of the New York Times. Cohen’s lucid writing makes even the most difficult court cases understandable as he expertly details the evolution of the law in areas as diverse as the workplace, criminal law, campaign contributions and the corporate boardroom. Cohen’s greatest strength, however, is his ability to explain clearly and urgently how the court, supposedly the least political of the three branches of the government, has relentlessly pursued a political agenda that has made Americans less equal and less secure.

If nothing else, Supreme Inequality reveals the extensive role the court plays in everyday American life. More importantly, it is a sobering history of how the court has disregarded precedent, statutory law and common sense to achieve its political agenda. The only question that remains is if it’s too late to do anything about it.

America has become more unequal since the 1960s. The middle class has shrunk, schools are more segregated, and mass incarceration has devastated African American and Latinx communities. Meanwhile, wealthy individuals and corporations have an outsize say in elections, resulting in lower taxes, more favorable legislation and preferential treatment from government agencies. What is not well […]

It may be hard to believe in these days of seemingly endless political campaigns, but once upon a time, presidential candidates disdained personally stumping for political office. Asserting oneself through the written word was considered vain, undignified and beneath the status of a public figure. This is not to say they stayed silent: Through “anonymously” written biographies, pamphlets and authoritative histories like Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, they made themselves known and helped themselves become, for the most part, exalted. (Try as he might, John Adams didn’t fare so well in his attempts, and even Washington’s Farewell Address and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address had their partisan cynics and critics.)

In this eye-opener of a read, Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote, Craig Fehrman resurrects many such presidential pages, along with a plethora of facts and foibles about their writers—and ghostwriters. Alexander Hamilton and Ted Sorensen were among these invisible helpers, and their tales are here, too. For both the scholar and the casually curious, there is a lot to learn about our presidents.

This story cannot be told without layering in the birth of the publishing industry and the growing pains of transportation, and Fehrman weaves a detailed tapestry from these threads. From salesmen on horseback to today’s online clicks, authors have struggled to reach their readers. As Fehrman explains, “The most interesting thing about Obama and Lincoln are the differences”—as in, riding a horse to a distant general store with the hope that any book might be there in one era, and downloading an eBook onto one’s phone in the next.

There are the predictable standouts—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Grant, Roosevelt and Kennedy—and some outstanding surprises, such as Coolidge, Truman and Reagan. Whiffs of scandal puff up now and then. Jefferson spoke mightily of human rights but kept his slaves. Kennedy earned his Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, or did he? Every candidate used the power of the written word to open the door to the White House and, later, secure his legacy. Fehrman ensures their words will continue to matter.

It may be hard to believe in these days of seemingly endless political campaigns, but once upon a time, presidential candidates disdained personally stumping for political office. Asserting oneself through the written word was considered vain, undignified and beneath the status of a public figure. This is not to say they stayed silent: Through “anonymously” […]

Five new books celebrate the perseverance, perspicacity and power of black Americans.


How should we talk about black history in a time like ours? Today’s political landscape definitely prompts discussion, debate and introspection, and it may warrant speaking bluntly about the state of things. When it comes to race, it’s hard to say if the world is more apt to listen to a benevolent voice or a belligerent demand, but luckily, these books have a little bit of both. As we reflect on the rich contributions of black Americans this month, the following titles make for compelling, relevant and worthy conversation starters.

Conversations in Black

Begin with Conversations in Black. Ed Gordon has assembled a who’s who of black voices in conversation with each other, discussing the world as they see it in 2020. We have Al Sharpton bouncing thoughts off of Charlamagne Tha God, Jemele Hill dissecting Obama’s legacy with Stacey Abrams, and Killer Mike and Harry Belafonte getting into it with Eric Holder. Together, they discuss the treatment of the black community during the Trump administration, the successes and failures of politicians in addressing racial disparity, reparations, the racial wealth gap and so much more. With so many voices animating the expanse of black experiences today, this is the perfect gateway to richer comprehension and, hopefully, conversation.

The Affirmative Action Puzzle

The past few years have seen renewed discussion of affirmative action, with several state legislatures reversing benefits, colleges rolling back programs and no shortage of incensed think pieces on both sides of the issue. If you’re looking to educate yourself on this complicated subject, look no further than The Affirmative Action Puzzle. Author Melvin I. Urofsky traces the development of affirmative action over the generations, beginning with hypothetical (and ultimately abandoned) motions to grant civil rights and reparations at the close of the Civil War, through the incremental fight to access voting, up to the current debate during the Trump era. With this exhaustive history under your belt, you’ll have no shortage of insights for your next roundtable discussion.

Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words

We all know Rosa Parks as the woman who bravely resisted yielding her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus in 1955, but there’s so much more to the story of this titan of American history—and who better to tell that story than her? In Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words, author Susan Reyburn provides a candid look into Parks’ personal life through previously unreleased letters, documents and photographs. The book is small enough to breeze through in one sitting, and its 96 colorful pages illustrate Parks’ innermost thoughts, fears and triumphs—from her work with the NAACP leading up to the bus boycott, through her years of relative poverty afterward and ending with her eventual glorification, meeting world leaders and seeing the impact of her life’s work upon the world. This courageous woman packed so much into her life, and likewise, the details of her life are packed into this inspiring portrait.

Olympic Pride, American Prejudice

Not all of America’s black heroes won their victories by sitting down. In fact, the athletes profiled in Olympic Pride, American Prejudice ran race after race to cement their names in the history books, at a time when they weren’t allowed to even walk through the front door of many American establishments. In an accessible narrative style, authors Deborah Riley Draper and Travis Thrasher weave together the stories of 18 different runners coming into their prime at the dawn of the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and culminating in their powerful performance in the 1936 Berlin Olympics—much to the dismay of Adolf Hitler. These athletes came from all walks of life, from college students to dock workers to housewives, and competed on the world stage decades before any meaningful civil rights progress was made in the U.S. These historic track and field stars come to life in full relief on the page, revealing their fears, internal debates and complicated relationships with a power structure that simultaneously exalted and shamed them. How do you represent a country that hates you, and should you even try? It’s a complicated question, and one that is well trod in this book.

These historic track and field stars come to life in full relief on the page, revealing their complicated relationships with a power structure that simultaneously exalted and shamed them.

Driving While Black

It’s a long journey on the road to equality, and it’s a bumpy road, at that. If you’re feeling a little highway weary, I’d recommend pulling over, taking a pit stop and cracking open a copy of Driving While Black by Gretchen Sorin. Like most civil rights, vehicular freedom was a cultural battle that took several extra decades to be actualized for African Americans. Once black Americans began to drive, personal automobiles became instrumental to progressive milestones like the Montgomery bus boycotts of 1955, in which fleets of community vehicles carried activists to and from work in lieu of buses. But dangers still abounded for black Americans behind the wheel, due to segregation, Jim Crow laws and white-supremacist terrorist groups running rampant across America. Driving While Black also chronicles the rise of car culture in tandem with rock ’n’ roll music (Chuck Berry loved his Cadillacs), as well as the vast network of black-friendly establishments outlined in the popular Green Book. Feeling gassed up yet? Grab this book to-go and get to reading.

Today’s political landscape definitely prompts discussion, debate and introspection, and it may warrant speaking bluntly about the state of things. When it comes to race, it’s hard to say if the world is more apt to listen to a benevolent voice or a belligerent demand, but luckily, these books have a little bit of both.

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