Americans who never take the time to learn about the history of suffrage grow up assuming the vote was expanded systematically, steadily, and with nea...moreAmericans who never take the time to learn about the history of suffrage grow up assuming the vote was expanded systematically, steadily, and with near universal support. We assume the opponents to universal suffrage were Archie Bunker types, recalcitrant members of an insecure old guard. We do not immediately picture mainstream, legitimate political parties and their supporters as tangible enemies of democracy. The real narrative of the history of American liberty takes a surprising form, with clearly delineated pickets and factions alligned in favor of or opposition to democracy itself.
Alexander Keyssar demonstrates how the conservative band of the first American political spectrum opposed challenging the colonial status quo of limiting to vote to property rich, adult, white males. When this social order became controversial, with the democratizing element often being war, certain factions sought to minimize extension as much as possible, relenting only to specific sensitivites of the times. The impetus continued. Proponents of a selective polity always found plausible positions to base their arguments upon. It is wise to explore those positions, to explain how otherwise virtuous citizens could take an attitude that our contemporary sensibility finds contemptuous. But it is of greater importance to demonstrate how this attitude was consitently proven false in hindsight.
The overall impression a reader will take from The Right to Vote is that every freedom we feel is inviolable today was once hard fought for. That the promise of a democratic republic was not alone sufficient to deliver its vaunted freedoms to all citizens of the realm. If this is truly the case, it should make one question whether citizens continue to face concerted threats to their liberty and if monumental wrongs can be righted and potential damage can be averted by wise use of the vote that was once a colossal struggle to secure.(less)
The subtitle of The Race Beat reads: "The press, the civil rights struggle, and the awakening of a nation."
The genius of Jim Crow (and key to its long...moreThe subtitle of The Race Beat reads: "The press, the civil rights struggle, and the awakening of a nation."
The genius of Jim Crow (and key to its longevity) was its ability to operate undetected. Many of the defenders of the fortress segregation of the South lent support without ever knowing the true shape of the institution. Most Southerners were like people with their noses pushed up to the edge of an iceberg. From their vantage point, they had no way of knowing the hulk's true size and shape. This does not absolve them from all complicity, but it does explain how good people can balance a great evil in their collective heart. In short, a great many people didn't actually see how bad segregation was.
Likewise with people living outside the South.
One of the first tactics of the civil rights movement was to gain a high visibility in the media. Unfortunately, fortress segregation was not going to be changed from within. The stormtroopers of segregation lacked the foot soldiers' ambivalence and took a more aggressive role in advancing their cause of white supremacy. Without publicity, all those clashes in the cities of the former Confederacy would have resulted in nothing more than bloodshed and broken bones. It was important that the scenes be published to audiences elsewhere in the country. Only then, only through top-down legislation and federal protection would Jim Crow be spun out.
Whether the scenes portrayed were the contents of condiment bottles being emptied onto the heads of students waiting for service at a lunch counter, children marching past pickets to attend school in Little Rock, churchgoers pinned to the wall by high pressure fire hoses in Birmingham, or the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, the documentary evidence of segregation galvanized the decency of the country.
To do so placed organizers like the NAACP and SCLC in harm's way. Fortunately, there was another important corps of news men and women who braved physical violence to report a story of great moral and national importance. This, more than the actual narrative, is the point of the authors' work in The Race Beat.
In many ways, the generations to come of age after 1965 are as ambivalent and misunderstanding about fortress segregation as those Southerners who lived in its huge lee. Though I have since studied the civil rights era and Southern politics, I grew up one of those people. I found The Race Beat a startling lens back to a generation we are in danger of forgetting.(less)
Julian Zelizer has compiled comprehensive scholarship of the politics of national security, since 1945. Arsenal of Democracy is not a debate over nati...moreJulian Zelizer has compiled comprehensive scholarship of the politics of national security, since 1945. Arsenal of Democracy is not a debate over national security policy, but rather a description of how the hawks and doves reel in the air over Washington. This approach circumvents the pragmatic and ideological arguments behind various security strategies and focuses exclusively on the way those arguments are appropriated and marketed by politicians, specifically the interplay of power and rivalry between the White House and Congress.
The author chooses to present his findings in chronological, episodic order that plays to readers' existing knowledge of the national security narrative, from the long telegram through suspension of habeus corpus. Nothing in between is missed. Zelizer covers McCarthyism, Vietnam (and its attendants The Great Society and Watergate), detente, SDI ("Star Wars"), and 9-11 all in turn. In so doing, he demonstrates the unbroken partisan strife that connects the present through to the past, contending that the party who best owns the mantle of "tough on national security" will win power, despite the fact that such toughness tends to become a liability over time.
It is a story of cyclical metamorphosis, as parties co-opt the potency of security as a brand to win elections, but fail to prevent the brand from being recast by the opposition. Rather than attack hawkishness as the problem, opposition typically styles its target as a betrayer of the trust. In this way, the mantle of security remains supernaturally charged and is continually chased as a prize. The cycle repeats, ad infinitum. (less)
As of this date, The Last Train from Hiroshima has been recalled by the publisher in response to questions about the author's integrity obtaining and...moreAs of this date, The Last Train from Hiroshima has been recalled by the publisher in response to questions about the author's integrity obtaining and validating his sources. At this point, it's clear at least one counterfeit source was quoted often, despite lack of corroborating evidence. Other sources may lack appropriate citation or actually not exist. The author's academic credentials may even be false, owing to doubt about his alleged PhD. This should be enough to dissuade readers. However, I was already in possession of the book when the doubts began to gather and attempted to put them aside and incorporate my impression of the book in my final decision about the author's scholarship.
Had Mr. Pellegrino's integrity not been in question, I'm not convinced I'd write a favorable review of Last Train from Hiroshima. The book's foreword pledges the book is intended to educate readers against future use of weapons of mass destruction. To do so, the author has relied practiacally exclusively on florid examples of how much it sucks to find oneself under an atomic bomb and the resulting fallout.
It should surprise no one that proximity to a nuclear weapon sucks. A handful of examples, even horrifying ones (which the author happily provides), are to be expected, to put a human face on a tragedy that is typically remembered by posterity by a data set. I do not see why three hundred pages are necessary to make this point. Especially not when it comes at the expense of the other points one could make about the true cost of nuclear war and why it should be eliminated as an option in modern warfare.
The author devotes a few sentences in a three hundred page document of horror so graphic it is almost pornographic to facts like the American occupational forces (led by General MacArthur) tried to suppress victim accounts of the bombings. A little more time is given to the ostracization victims endured after 1945. A similar dearth is given to the Japanese military reaction to the bomb and its role in ending the war. Since the thesis that nuclear war sucks is patently obvious before ever committing pen to paper, it seems to me that one's efforts are more wisely spent advancing the implications rather than the immediate effects. As such, I feel Last Train is a waste of time.
My final impression is one of exploitation, that the victims' pain is given cinematic treatment (perhaps even embellished for effect) to thrill readers the way a Hollywood blockbuster thrills audiences with amplified scenery. I don't think this association is accidental. The author was director James Cameron's scientific advisor on the Academy Award winning film Avatar and Mr. Cameron had optioned Last Train to Hiroshima for a major film, presumably to dethrone Saving Private Ryan as the apex WWII shock epic. Fine for Hollywood, but this is not the way historians work.(less)
I am very pleased by the fact the author doesn't simply enumerate the various victories and losses or deluge readers with the "Ken Burns treatment." I...moreI am very pleased by the fact the author doesn't simply enumerate the various victories and losses or deluge readers with the "Ken Burns treatment." I guess this comes as a disappointment to military history buffs, but there are already tons of books on miníe-balls and Manassas and "what would have been if (fill in the blank) had won at (fill in the blank).
Where I found Ms. Goodwin excelled was in playing to her subject's strength. Abraham Lincoln was, by every measure, a very ebullient and gracious man. He liked a good anecdote (indeed laughed at his own jokes) and could distill dry prose into poetry (transforming Seward's thorough missives into inaugurals and addresses later memorized by schoolchildren). Goodwin's narrative swells with the president's good moods and readers are swept along in a stream that is, frankly, as close as anyone is going to get to actually having been in the room. Few biographers succeed in this respect (McCullough with Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps); fewer succeed while staying true to their thesis and insight into the politics. Goodwin hasn't just raised an altar of sycophancy to Lincoln; she has recreated him in full.
Obviously, Lincoln is the center of the narrative, but his "team" of former rivals is well documented – better, in fact, than any other work I have come across. Lincoln's political genius was his uncanny sense of timing (releasing his ideas only after having taken a reliable reconnaissance of public opinion or first cultivating the ground himself), but also his brilliance as a diplomat. The episode in which Secretary Seward tenders his resignation only to be met by sympathetic "brothers" in the cabinet showed how Lincoln knitted his administration together into a sort of family. This is said of General Washington's aides de camp as well, but unlike the military family, Lincoln's cabinet wasn't abuzz with tender egos and chips on shoulders (well, not as much anyway). The closest approximation of this conciliatory style I can find is Jefferson's "dinner party" in which he reconciles Madison's and Hamilton's differences over monetary policy. But the best Jefferson could do was broker compromise; he did not bring the two men together completely. This was the measure of Lincoln's political and managerial genius.
Team of Rivals won the Pulitzer for history for a reason. Goodwin has provided some of the freshest, most well-rounded scholarship of an era better remembered for generals, casualties, and quasi-fictional romance of the ante-bellum South. In focusing on the political arena north of the secession line, readers grasp a feature of the national character that’s been obscured for 150 years.
Now, a couple of fun remarks:
I read several passages aloud to my five month old to soothe him at night and while rocking him. He especially liked it when I read Lincoln in a funny voice. Since I spent some of my childhood in Kentucky (like Lincoln), it's entirely possible I got the president right. Needless to say, this book read with a melodramatic air has the potential to be a big hit with the bassinet set.
Also, someone once pointed out that the historian Joseph J. Ellis will write the word "congeal" at least once in everything he publishes. I've turned it into something like a game to note each occurrence. Goodwin has a similar favorite word: "cavil." She uses the word at least a half dozen times in Team of Rivals, whereas I don't think I've seen it in print anywhere else six times in the past six years. (She also uses the word "congeal" once.)(less)
Rocket Men is a study in missed opportunity. The author, snared in the spell of his subject, failed to see what he really had: A good book about the C...moreRocket Men is a study in missed opportunity. The author, snared in the spell of his subject, failed to see what he really had: A good book about the Cold War arms race.
At the center of this book is a close study of the rocket and missile science essential to Cold War policy on both sides of the iron curtain, most notably how the space race served as a demilitarized proxy for testing communist versus capitalist preeminence. Mr. Nelson explains the Cuban Missile Crisis and quiet agreement to forego development of anti-satellite weapons as well as any other author of recent memory. More importantly, he delivers it in an accessible style that casual readers will "fly" to (if you'll pardon the pun).
However, acts 1 and 3 deal almost exclusively with Apollo 11 and the engineering triumphs of the summer of 1969. The author went to great lengths to collect comprehensive oral accounts, and captured something of the culture of NASA in the 60s through unadorned preservation of the idioms and manner of speaking of those close to the action. But a little bit goes a long way. Mr. Nelson is too dependent on long quotations; rather than flavor the narrative in a positive way, they bog it down.
Nelson also relies heavily on figures and technical information. This alone isn't a problem, except the author appears to lack academic discipline. Agencies are sometimes referred to by their acronyms before they are referred to by their proper names. Also, the alphabet soup of acronyms is a little heavy - a courteous writer should try to limit his dependence on them when writing to a casual audience.
The biggest problem of all is the haphazard way Mr. Nelson has structured the narrative. Arranging the composition in three acts isn't bad, but the acts are both out of chronological order and redundant. I cannot see how acts 1 and 3 (which deal essentially with the Apollo 11 mission itself) perform different functions within the manuscript. They feel like heavy bookends, buttressing the middle act with unnecessary ornament.
Rocket Men is not completely without enjoyment. It's full of trivia and the author uses some of the quirkiest metaphors I've ever seen applied to a technical subject (comparing the Eagle lunar module to a bacteriophagic virus, landing on a foreign body and discharging its human genetic material will forever "infect" my memory). And, of course, act 2 (concerning the Cold War arms race) is a thrill. Reading Rocket Men is a little like being atop a Saturn V at launch: It lurches, is erratic and utterly beyond one's control. It's a bumpy ride, but one that may ultimately be worth the discomfort. (less)