An ambitious, kaleidoscopic history of race and politics in Washington, D.C.
The nation’s capital was the first major majority-black city in the United States. “Chocolate City,” the affectionate name created by black locals, has long been the epicenter of America’s national political scene, but for generations, it also has been arguably the sociocultural capital of black America. In this vitally important work, Washington History editor Asch (History/Colby Coll.; The Senator and the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer, 2008) and Musgrove (History/Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore County) narrate a sprawling history of the intersections of race, culture, and politics in Washington. From the early 17th century through the presidency of Barack Obama, the country’s first black president, race has helped to shape and define not only the area that would become the District of Columbia, but also the U.S. as a whole. The authors move chronologically, with chapters covering specific periods in the area’s history, from 1608-1790 through 1995-2010 and beyond. In each section, they show how the city “has had both a catalyzing and at times demoralizing effect on local racial struggles.” Certainly, D.C. has embodied the rhetorical freedoms on which the country was founded, but as the authors show, it also demonstrated the abject failings of those freedoms when it came to black Americans. Of course, the city is much more than just a metaphor; it is also a unique city with its own dynamic history, the political center of the country where its residents, majority black by the 1960s, reside in what the authors call the “voteless capital of democracy.” From slavery through the civil rights movement, from the Constitutional establishment of the District through the election of Obama—a moment wildly celebrated in the city’s streets even if, for black Washingtonians and others, his actual presidency was not the panacea they hoped—the city has captured myriad hypocrisies and paradoxes of race in America.
Essential American history, deeply researched and written with verve and passion.
The renowned historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction continues the story begun in his Bancroft Prize–winning In the Presence of Mine Enemies (2003), recounting those events as they played out beyond the Blue Ridge.
The Civil War was fought on many fronts but perhaps none more malleable than that in the Great Valley, which runs from Pennsylvania through Maryland and into Virginia. There, writes University of Richmond president emeritus Ayers (What Caused the Civil War?: Reflections on the South and Southern History, 2005, etc.) in this luminous account, Union armies threatened the Confederacy with near impunity, while Rebel forces attempted to do the same, as at Monocacy, Chambersburg, and other northward forays. As the author chronicles, these movements were calculated as much to prolong the war in the hope of costing Abraham Lincoln the 1864 election as to achieve any lasting military victory, reason enough for Robert E. Lee to raid into Pennsylvania, thus “making Northerners feel what it meant to live in an occupied land.” Along the Pennsylvania border of this heartland, communities of emancipated African-Americans, who contributed many troops to the Union cause, suffered raids that returned prisoners to slavery—even as, late in the war, Lee endorsed using black troops in the Confederate ranks. More than any other place, Ayers argues persuasively, the valley had special reason to fear the resumption of campaigning in the spring of 1864, when it “could come under assault from north and south, east and west, inside and outside.” It was no less contested during Reconstruction, when voting laws were engineered to displace former rebels and impose rule by so-called carpetbaggers, an early instance of gerrymandering. As elsewhere in the South, the narrative on the war and its causes diverged from that favored in the North, building a lasting division even as the Supreme Court tolerated and even encouraged “complete legal segregation, disenfranchisement, and subjugation of black Southerners.”
An exemplary contribution to the history of the Civil War and its aftermath.
A stirring history of the 1968 battle that definitively turned the Vietnam War into an American defeat.
On the first day of the Tet Lunar New Year holiday in 1968, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces attacked the ancient city of Hue, the one-time capital of Vietnam and the country’s third-largest city. American forces scrambled to relieve the U.S. garrison there, amazed, as Bowden (The Three Battles of Wanat, 2016, etc.) writes, to be in an actual city after experiencing only “air bases, rice paddies, and jungle.” The battle occasioned not just surprise on the part of the grunts, but also a change in behavior on the part of the attackers, who had orders not just to liberate Hue, but “to look and behave like winners.” The tactic, to say nothing of the heavy losses inflicted on American and South Vietnamese forces, did indeed shift perceptions. The author observes that after Hue, it was only a matter of time before America would leave Vietnam, and in the bargain, ordinary American citizens would never again trust their government. Bowden delivers a series of brilliantly constructed set pieces, beginning with a moment of proto-social engineering in which a young, pretty Viet Cong learned about American troop movements in the city by flirting with GIs outside their compound. Devotees of Vietnam movies such as Full Metal Jacket will see several scenes come into real-life focus, with a football hero as commander and companies of troops bearing names like Hotel and Echo rooting out snipers and enemy columns, occasionally violating orders to save themselves by letting loose ground-fired napalm (“They caught hell for that—the commanders were worried about setting the city on fire”) against a smart, entrenched foe. Building on portraits of combatants on all sides, Bowden delivers an anecdotally rich, careful account of the complex campaign to take the city.
One of the best books on a single action in Vietnam, written by a tough, seasoned journalist who brings the events of a half-century past into sharp relief.
A leading historian of the Enlightenment explores the widely differing philosophies that led to the American and French revolutions and their social, cultural, and ideological impacts on the world.
Key themes of all revolutions include democratic vs. aristocratic republicanism, support or rejection of universal rights, suffrage qualifications, and the place of religion in society. At the heart of most of the Atlantic Revolutions of the late 18th century and first half of the 19th century was the rivalry between moderate and radical enlightenment. The moderates sought mixed government along the British lines while the radical side demanded separation of church and state and no established monarchy or aristocracy. In this epic work of historical scholarship, Israel (Emeritus, Modern History/Institute for Advance Study, Princeton Univ.; Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre, 2014, etc.) amply explains the concepts that drive revolutions and how they are shaped by organized vanguards interpreting the general discontent and challenging the status quo. He also explores the many different intellectual forces at work: the influence of writers like Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, and Paine, and especially the almost polar differences among radical and moderate revolutionaries. Showing the significance of the French Revolution in America, Israel notes that the Reign of Terror was viewed as a horrific aberration. Meanwhile, the Jeffersonians constantly butted heads with the Hamiltonians, and while Benjamin Franklin embodied the highest values of the American Revolution in Europe, his radicalism was divisive. Due to this friction, as well as incompetent ambassadors from both France and America, it is actually surprising that the American Civil War didn’t break out much sooner. This is not just a history of the French and American revolutions, however, as the author masterfully examines Canadian involvement, the Haitian slave rebellion, the four Anglo-Dutch Wars, and fighting in the Cape Colony and well beyond to Greece, Spain, South America, and other areas.
An impressively broad scholarly history whose readability and smooth organization make it a joy to read.
From the consolidation of the city into five boroughs to the massive upheavals after World War I.
After the Pulitzer Prize–winning first volume, Gotham (1998), by Wallace (History/John Jay Coll. of Criminal Justice; A New Deal for New York, 2002, etc.) and Edwin G. Burrows, which traced the city’s founding up to 1898, this massive second installment explores themes of business consolidation, construction, and the backlash that would accompany such intensive growth—e.g., labor unrest through World War I. This is a huge undertaking, and Wallace organizes the work tidily. He first identifies the key players in the creation of this modern city (“Who Rules New York?”), which, at the time, replaced London as the financial hub of the world. These figures and organizations included, among countless others ably delineated by Wallace, J.P. Morgan, Tammany Hall trough-feeders, ferocious reform groups like the Women’s Municipal League and muckraker Lincoln Steffens, and maverick publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst. Everyone wanted a piece of the building boom, as evidenced by the skyscraper boom in the first two decades of the new century: “the skyline replaced the harbor as New York’s emblem, just as financiers supplanted merchants in the city’s economy.” The author captures the frenetic mood of the time, as many New Yorkers were “gripped by a Promethean frenzy.” As the author writes, “for these Gothamites, soaring buildings signaled prosperity, power, and movement into the front rank of world-class cities.” On the other hand, as trains, bridges, subways, tunnels, terminals, stations, docks, and islands evolved to meet the needs of the huge influx of immigrants and workers, there emerged an important reform movement to address the poor, sick, and disenfranchised. From “Progressives” to “Repressives,” Wallace devotes an entire block of chapters to New York gangs, crime, and cops, as well as to “Radicals,” “Bending Gender,” “Black Metropolis,” and “Insurgent Art,” among numerous other lively strands.
True to its subject, a monumental work of myriad vantage points.
The inspiring story of the “Ritchie Boys” and their unique contribution to the Allied victory in World War II.
The Ritchie Boys, named for Maryland’s Camp Ritchie, where they trained, were primarily Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany, chosen for their language skills and knowledge of German culture. In a highly readable, often thrilling narrative, prolific nonfiction author Henderson (Rescue at Los Baños: The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II, 2015) focuses on the members of this elite, 2,000-man unit who escaped from Europe and by one means or another made it to the United States. Enlisting for military service, they were given specially designed intelligence training at Camp Ritchie. After their training, they went back to Europe as intelligence specialists and interrogators and performed a vital function on the front lines for the 82nd Airborne and Patton’s 3rd Army, among many others. Trained specifically in the details of the Nazi military’s order of battle, the Ritchie Boys had the skills to provide Allied forces with detailed knowledge of what they would encounter as they moved forward in the advance across Europe. While Henderson acknowledges the contributions of all the Ritchie Boys his researcher could identify, his account focuses on about a dozen men. He tells the individual stories of how these youngsters’ families were split up, especially after Kristallnacht in 1938, and they came here to make a new start, some with just a few dollars in their pockets. Some of the standouts from this impressive group were Werner Angress, who, without proper parachute training, jumped into Normandy with the 82nd Airborne on D-Day; and Victor Brombert, who provided intelligence for the counterattack in the Battle of the Bulge. Others were among the first into some of the most notorious death camps in Germany, and many went on to make equally significant postwar contributions to their adopted country.
A gripping addition to the literature of the period and an overdue tribute to these unique Americans.
New York may be an amusement park for the very rich these days, but as this grimly detailed historical account reveals, there was a time….
“Ford to City: Drop Dead.” The New York Daily News headline of Oct. 30, 1975, still resounds. It wouldn’t be long before Ford gave way to Carter and the Summer of Sam, but the president’s shock-doctrine belief that the U.S. had entered “an age of austerity, in which it was no longer possible for the government to pay for many social services to which the American people had grown accustomed,” has also remained constant in the years since. Phillips-Fein (History/NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study; Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan, 2009, etc.) deftly recounts the clash between government entities and vested interests as New York struggled to cope with slashed social service budgets, funding that contributed to what economists call public goods of use to society at large but that was frowned on by the dawning every-man-for-himself conservative movement that has since held sway. Those austerity budgets soon threatened to bring the city to the edge of bankruptcy, which was itself a shock doctrine all its own—for, as Phillips-Fein writes, “the financial collapse of New York would be the ultimate symbol of American economic decline, a demonstration to the whole world that the United States was no longer the preeminent nation it had been over the postwar years.” Given events since, New York’s crisis—and the author’s astute account of it—seems oddly timely, a swirl of “crisis budgets” and union-busting, of collapsing public education systems and declining labor power. In the end, she writes, as New York went in the ’70s and beyond, so went the nation, from a time when government held public goods to be of value to one in which private enterprise is the “sole way to fuel social development”—perfectly consonant, that is to say, with an economy and culture of inequality.
Sobering, smart reading with many pointed lessons for activists.
A scrupulous history of one of the darkest moments in American military history.
On March 16, 1968, troops from the United States Army entered a series of villages in South Vietnam, and what ensued has been called the “My Lai Massacre,” one of the most shameful events in the history of U.S. foreign affairs. Although the numbers remain in dispute, perhaps the most reliable indicate 504 dead, more than half of whom were under 20 years of age. The slaughter served no larger strategic or tactical purpose. It was murder in cold blood, and an out-of-his-depth 24-year-old soldier, William Calley, who was guilty of an array of crimes against humanity that day, would serve as the focal point of the criminal investigations that followed. Calley would be found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. This book is part of the publisher’s Pivotal Moments in American History series, and the events of My Lai—indeed, all of 1968—certainly fit. “My Lai was a turning point for so many reasons,” writes Jones (Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations, 2010, etc.), “not least for the ways in which it tarnished the image many Americans had of their soldiers, and that the soldiers had of themselves.” The story of that day did not emerge, however, until 1969, primarily due to the investigative journalism of Seymour Hersh, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on My Lai. Jones is a versatile historian—his work has ranged from the nation’s founding era to the modern U.S.—and here, he successfully accomplishes two tasks: first, he provides as comprehensive a history of My Lai as we are likely to see for some time. Second, he thoughtfully probes the myriad ways that the My Lai story has been told.
Jones succeeds on all counts in a book that, due to its subject matter, is not pleasant to read but is powerful and important.
An examination of an infamous 1957 conviction of a young, black Army veteran for the murder of a white police officer that more broadly delineates the struggle for civil rights.
In addition to digging up significant details on this important but little-known case, Bass (History/Samford Univ.; Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the "Letter from Birmingham Jail", 2001) seamlessly weaves in a larger history of civil rights. On July 12, 1957, when James “Cowboy” Clark stopped black motorist Caliph Washington in the excessively corrupt city of Bessemer, Alabama, a struggle ensued. Clark ended up dead, and Washington fled, soon to be captured in Mississippi. Did Washington intentionally shoot longtime officer Clark during a struggle over Clark’s gun, or could the struggle be considered self-defense due to Washington’s fear that Clark intended to murder him out of racial hatred? Since the Alabama court system wanted to display at least the veneer of justice to the outside world, Washington went to trial. However, he received second-rate lawyering and faced an all-white jury. While on death row, Washington won a new trial due to courtroom irregularities. A second jury convicted Washington, who returned to death row. Under normal circumstances in Alabama, Washington would have been executed quickly at that juncture. However, the newly elected governor, George Wallace, despite his renown as a segregationist, felt uncomfortable with the death penalty, so he granted Washington reprieve after reprieve, which led to a second overturning of the guilty verdict. A third jury, no longer all-white, also convicted Washington. Appellate maneuvering continued for years until, finally, a judge ordered Washington’s release in 1971. The state refused to drop the case, but a fourth trial never occurred, and Washington lived an exemplary life of faith and family until his death in 2001. Throughout a skilled recounting of Washington’s travails, Bass offers extended riveting passages about the broader battle for civil rights in Alabama.
A stirring book that explores numerous aspects of racism in Alabama and the nation as a whole.
A thrilling tale of the “Italian Sherlock Holmes.”
Joseph Petrosino (1860-1909) started out at as a shoeshine boy and ran a garbage cart, but through a Tammany Hall connection, he got a job as a detective with the New York Police Department. Ostensibly the story of the mob and their uninhibited growth at the turn of the 20th century, Talty’s (Hangman, 2014, etc.) book presents much more, narrating the desperate struggle of one group of immigrants, the Italians, trying to eke out a life and raise their children without fear of abuse. They sought acceptance but suffered due to the acts of a few of their number. The government was biased, the police were indifferent, and most immigrants struggled to find jobs. While the Black Hand crime organization terrorized the Italian community, police protection was ineffective, virtually nonexistent, and the Secret Service only protected the rich and powerful. As the terror spread beyond Italian communities, calls went out to jail, deport, or bar absolutely all Italians from entering America. Petrosino convinced the police commissioner to allow him to form an Italian Squad. It was only five men, but all were fluent in Sicilian, expert in disguises, and able to blend in sufficiently to learn the secrets of their quarry. In the first year, they halved child kidnappings, protection rackets, and bombings, with little support from fellow police. Petrosino was beyond remarkable, dedicated to his work, absolutely fearless, and furious at any who would pay the Black Hand’s demands. The story of what he did almost single-handedly, as well as the systems he devised to do so, is fascinating, and the persecution, low pay, abuse, and ignorance of the immigrants’ rich culture strike a chord close to home these days.
Talty is an excellent storyteller, and this particular story is highly relevant as America’s next set of immigrants struggles for acceptance.
Summer of Sam? Fuggedaboudit. If you want to scare a New Yorker of a certain age, evoke the Mad Bomber, the subject of this taut true-crime whodunit.
George Metesky, as former New York Times editor Cannell (The Limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit, 2011, etc.) writes, was known for a span of two decades only as the Mad Bomber. Injured in a boiler explosion at a power plant and denied workers’ compensation on tedious but technical grounds, Metesky came to harbor a maniacal grudge against Consolidated Edison. From 1940 to 1956, he planted more than 30 pipe bombs around New York, which, as Cannell shrewdly notes, “brought into being a culture of fear more than four decades before terrorism became an American fixation.” But that culture of fear was just one result. As the author documents, the NYPD’s quest to find the serial bomber introduced a couple of modernizations, supplanting at least some of the police culture of the corrupt, thuggish precinct cops of yore with a cadre of college-trained technicians, their avatar a lab scientist named Howard Finney, who had three graduate degrees and wartime service in military intelligence and who could read a crime scene from the tiniest of clues. Pair such technicians with psychiatrists, and you have the recipe for what Cannell calls a “new breed of cop” and, indeed, a new era of policing. This new culture also took pains to involve the community in looking for clues, with sometimes bizarre results. As the author writes, one informant urged that a certain kind of person be rounded up (“check brown-eyed people, they’re no good”), while psychics and psychotics alike volunteered their services. In the end, catching Metesky involved the labors of many, from beat cops to techies, and the story holds its tension from start to finish through all those twists and turns.
A fascinating study not just of a historical crime and its consequences, but also its unintended effects.
German-born historian Hoock (British History/Univ. of Pittsburgh; Empires of the Imagination: Politics, War, and the Arts in the British World, 1750-1850, 2010, etc.) asserts that this is "the first book on the American Revolution and the Revolutionary War to adopt violence as its central analytical and narrative focus." Over time, he writes, the Revolution's pervasive violence and terror have "yielded to a strangely bloodless narrative of the war that mirrors the image of a tame and largely nonviolent Revolution." In fact, he claims in this fresh approach to a well-trod subject, "to understand the Revolution and the war—the very birth of the nation—we must write the violence, in all its forms, back into the story." This he certainly does, examining both physical and psychological violence inflicted by all participants—British, German and colonial military forces, Patriot and Loyalist partisans and civilians, Native Americans, and free and enslaved blacks—on each other throughout the conflict. The catalog of misery includes battlefield atrocities, rape and plunder of civilians, inhumane imprisonment, lynchings and expulsions, and the scorched-earth destruction of crops, plantations, and entire towns. Hoock suggests that the conflict is best understood as America's first civil war rather than as a colonial uprising. He also considers at length the struggles by civil and military leaders of both sides to determine what levels of violence would be efficacious in achieving their objectives and acceptable under contemporary ethical standards, issues of continuing relevance today. Deeply researched and buttressed by extensive useful endnotes, this is history that will appeal to both scholars and general readers. The author presents his grim narrative in language that is vivid without becoming lurid. In urging an acceptance of historical accuracy over our foundational myths, he hopes to direct us toward "an approach to global leadership…more restrained, finely calibrated, and generously spirited."
An accomplished, powerful presentation of the American Revolution as it was, rather than as we might wish to remember it.
A sweeping environmental history of the Gulf of Mexico that duly considers the ravages of nature and man.
In light of the 2010 devastation of the BP oil spill, environmental historian Davis (History and Sustainability Studies/Univ. of Florida; An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century, 2009, etc.) presents an engaging, truly relevant new study of the Gulf as a powerful agent in the American story, one that has become “lost in the pages of American history.” Once the habitat of the highly developed, self-sustaining Calusa indigenous people, the rich estuary of the Gulf is the 10th largest body of water in the world, and it forms the sheltered basin that creates the warm, powerful Gulf Stream, which allowed the first explorers, such as Ponce de León, to make their ways back to the Old World. Davis meanders through the early history of this fascinating sea, which became a kind of graveyard to many early marooned explorers due to shipwrecks and run-ins with natives. Yet the conquistadors took little note of the abundant marine life inhabiting the waters and, unaccountably, starved. A more familiar economy was established at the delta of the muddy, sediment-rich Mississippi River, discovered by the French. The author focuses on the 19th century as the era when the Gulf finally asserted its place in the great move toward Manifest Destiny; it would “significantly enlarge the water communication of national commerce and shift the boundary of the country from vulnerable land to protective sea.” The Gulf states would also become a mecca of tourism and fishing and, with the discovery of oil, enter a dire period of the “commercialization of national endowments.” The story of this magnificent body of water and its wildlife grows tragic at this point—e.g., the “killing juggernaut” of Gulf wading birds to obtain fashionable feathers. Still, it remains an improbable, valiant survival tale in the face of the BP oil spill and ongoing climate change.
An elegant narrative braced by a fierce, sobering environmental conviction.
Greed, depravity, and serial murder in 1920s Oklahoma.
During that time, enrolled members of the Osage Indian nation were among the wealthiest people per capita in the world. The rich oil fields beneath their reservation brought millions of dollars into the tribe annually, distributed to tribal members holding "headrights" that could not be bought or sold but only inherited. This vast wealth attracted the attention of unscrupulous whites who found ways to divert it to themselves by marrying Osage women or by having Osage declared legally incompetent so the whites could fleece them through the administration of their estates. For some, however, these deceptive tactics were not enough, and a plague of violent death—by shooting, poison, orchestrated automobile accident, and bombing—began to decimate the Osage in what they came to call the "Reign of Terror." Corrupt and incompetent law enforcement and judicial systems ensured that the perpetrators were never found or punished until the young J. Edgar Hoover saw cracking these cases as a means of burnishing the reputation of the newly professionalized FBI. Bestselling New Yorker staff writer Grann (The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession, 2010, etc.) follows Special Agent Tom White and his assistants as they track the killers of one extended Osage family through a closed local culture of greed, bigotry, and lies in pursuit of protection for the survivors and justice for the dead. But he doesn't stop there; relying almost entirely on primary and unpublished sources, the author goes on to expose a web of conspiracy and corruption that extended far wider than even the FBI ever suspected. This page-turner surges forward with the pacing of a true-crime thriller, elevated by Grann's crisp and evocative prose and enhanced by dozens of period photographs.
Dogged original research and superb narrative skills come together in this gripping account of pitiless evil.