Much like Professor Tergussen from the film Back to School, I hold history in a very sacred way, but without all the yelling.
It is my role today to be your Mr. Helper and offer some books relating to American History. These works are not necessarily the greatest available, but these works have found their way onto my bookshelf and are ones I’d like to share.
1776 by David McCullough
Let’s start with the American Revolution. David McCullough wrote an amazing work on the beginning of our country: 1776. The book was created to go along with his biography of John Adams. The year was a momentous one and McCullough is more than up to the task of documenting it and bringing the various story lines together. Of course, there was the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but there were other events which brought the possibility the new nation might not survive the year. There were horrible defeats such as the loss of New York City. If not for a quirk of weather, Washington might have been captured. Yet, after all the gut wrenching defeats, the year ended with incredible victories. The work is not a comprehensive review of the entire war, but of that single, fateful year.
Founding Father by Richard Brookhiser
The leading figure of the Revolution was the leader of the Continental Army: George Washington, Richard Brookhiser wrote a wonderful biography titled Founding Father. It was the first in a series of books he wrote about the individuals who were so critical in creating the United States. We see our first President on our money, in statues (that have not yet been torn down) and on the side of a hill in South Dakota. Brookhiser looked to go beyond those superficial elements and allow his readers to learn more than just the myth.
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
It has been said that Abraham Lincoln is one of the most written about individuals in world history. There are so many options available even on my own bookshelf. I am offering “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. In winning the Republican Party’s nomination for President in 1860, Lincoln outmaneuvered a host of worthy political adversaries. Given the fractures in the new political party let alone the country, upon winning the election, he worked to include those who he defeated. Lincoln’s capacity to bring his fragile party together would serve him well as he was tasked with doing the same for the country.
The American Civil War by John Keegan
Lincoln was commander in chief during the conflict, which resulted in more deaths than any other in the history of our country. Noted military historian, John Keegan, gives one of the best, comprehensive analyses of the war, the people and how it all transpired “The American Civil War”. It is all here, wonderful stories, details and off course the people who fought the conflict. The war is chronicled, east vs west on sea and on land as well as military and political implications.
D-Day by Stephen Ambrose
Another noted historian, the late Stephen Ambrose, wrote so much about World War II, but the work I’m going to focus on today is his book “D-Day”. There are other Ambrose written books dealing with elements of this topic such as “Pegasus Bridge” or “Band of Brothers”. However, it is here where all the pieces are put together. Ambrose’s goal was to create the work in time for the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994. Ambrose was President Eisenhower’s biographer. It gave him tremendous insight into the events and his skill in crafting a narrative makes compelling reading. I especially enjoyed his conclusions on why, in the face of great adversary, the American Army was able to overcome the great obstacles it faced that day.
Flag of our Fathers by James Bradley
A more recent work highlighted the stories of a group of men who found themselves immortalized for what seemed, at the moment, an insignificant action in their participation toward winning the war with Japan. “Flag of our Fathers” was written by the son (James Bradley) of one of the men (John Bradley) who raised the American Flag over Iwo Jima in February 1945. Raising the flag had an enormous impact on the men who survived the battle. The work reminds or introduces readers to some of what got glossed over. The image captured by photographer Joe Rosenthal, was not the first American flag raised over Iwo Jima that day – it was the second. The flag raising didn’t end the battle, but merely reflected the island’s high point had been captured. Three of the six soldiers who raised the flag never left the island alive. Of the three who survived, two did not handle their new found celebrity well. The last ultimately retreated to his home state of Wisconsin and largely spent the balance of his long life running his business, raising his family and avoided, as much as he could, looking back.
A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin
Following World War II, our country found itself locked into a different type of war – a Cold War. One where the two adversaries did not directly confront each other, but found other ways of competing. One of those ways was the race into outer space. Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight put the Soviet space effort ahead of the US. President Kennedy in 1961resolved the US would make a manned trip to the Moon by the end of the decade. “A Man on the Moon” by Andrew Chaikin chronicles the story. It begins with the horrific fire aboard Apollo I and takes the reader through the successes including the successful failure of Apollo 13. The book concludes with the Apollo program being cut and the final mission which sent Harrison Schmidt, a geologist, to the lunar surface.
The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc by Douglas Brinkley
Just as Stephen Ambrose tried to find the way to right way to memorialize Operation Overlord in 1994, ten years earlier the Reagan administration was struggling to do the same. The summer of 1984 was a very cold season of the Cold War. Not only was the speech to commemorate the American, British, Canadian, French and other who fought, but also to highlight the struggle between the west and the east. Douglas Brinkley wrote “The Boys of Pointe du Hoc” and depicts the struggle within administration leading up to the event. Brinkley makes a fascinating point of how the honor and valor of, what would later be called “The Greatest Generation” was cemented in the public’s mind. Peggy Noonan’s auto-biography “What I saw at the Revolution” is also a resource in seeing what occurred in crafting that speech and others during her time working in the Reagan White House.
No look at American History is complete without looking at America’s game: baseball. Bill James, the man who brought statistical examination of the game to the masses – wrote the “Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract”. He wrote two versions – first came out in the mid 1980’s. The other was an update from 2003. Inside you will see his list of the top players of all time by position and separated by their peak value versus career value. Another element to the book, was a decade by decade examination of the game, key players and teams, and how the game changed. I encourage you to find James’ spot on description of Don Mossi, who played in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The short aside shows James’ humor cast against the amazing work cataloging his vast baseball knowledge.
What it Takes by Richard Ben Cramer
Given the upcoming change in Presidential administrations, I will leave you with a look back. Richard Ben Cramer wrote, what is widely considered to be the definitive work of political journalism in his book “What it takes”. It is the story of the 1988 race for the White House. It is a character study on a very large scale. The author’s goal was to ask specific questions to why someone, anyone, would subject themselves, family and friends to the gristmill which is the modern political campaign. No spoiler alert here – you should know how the story ends, but what is fascinating and compelling is how you get to the finish line. Appropriate time is spent covering both of the hotly contested party primary contests. One of the lessor characters is now our President-Elect. 1988 was Joe Biden’s first effort to win the Presidency. There is much to be learned through the glances we get into his first failed campaign.