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American History 3.0

The importance of understanding the nation’s past

Nov. 7, 2016
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Knowing where America came from is essential to understanding how we got here, and might even present some ideas on how to proceed into the uncertain future.

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America (W.W. Norton), by Patrick Phillips

In 1977, when he was in second grade, Patrick Phillips moved to Forsyth County near Atlanta. He noticed something: everyone in the county was white. Now a professor at Drew University, he decided to find out why. Blood at the Root reconstructs events in 1912 following the brutal rape of a white woman against a backdrop of rising racial tension in Forsyth County. Frustrated by the insistence of Georgia’s governor and local officials to give the suspects a trial (even if the verdict was a forgone conclusion), nightriders burned churches, dynamited shanties and drove out every black family. The county remained white until the dawn of the 21st century. Blood at the Root is a disturbing account of American ethnic cleansing along with racism both militant and moderate. In the latter camp sat Georgia’s wealthy elite, hoping to curb violence, preserve their black labor force and sell Northern investors an image of the “New South.”

The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City: Spectacle and Assassination at the 1901 World’s Fair (W.W. Norton), by Margaret Creighton

Buffalo just couldn’t get a break. Overshadowed by New York City and envious of Chicago’s 1893 “White City” World’s Fair, Buffalo successfully vied to become host of the 1901 world’s fair. The grounds were dubbed the “Rainbow City” for the profusion of new-fangled colored electric lights, but the event was darkened by the assassination of visiting U.S. President William McKinley. In The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City, historian Margaret Creighton discovers that the fair was marred by other problems. A woman who thought she could entertain the crowds by going over nearby Niagara Falls in a barrel died. After one of the fair’s “freak show” attractions, a two-foot tall Latina called Chiquita, disappeared, her “owner” claimed she had been kidnapped. Actually, she eloped and escaped to Canada. And although most of the fairgoers were unconcerned, Rainbow City included many degrading depictions of native peoples and cruelty to animal performers. 

The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution (Oxford University Press), by Michael J. Klarman

Americans of all persuasions take the U.S. Constitution as a given, but as Michael J. Klarman reminds us, “nothing about the process that produced the Constitution was inevitable.” A professor at Harvard Law School, Klarman credits James Madison with navigating numerous obstacles. Madison encouraged the states to send delegates to the convention, persuaded George Washington to attend, shaped the agenda and devised the overall scheme for a federal system providing for state authority within a unified nation. He didn’t win every skirmish but was a voice heard in every debate. Examining the historical record with readable erudition, Klarman find indications that without the constitution’s passage, the U.S. may have splintered early on along north-south lines at a time before anyone had the will to fight a civil war to keep the nation together. 

Lincoln’s Greatest Journey: Sixteen Days that Changed a Presidency, March 24-April 8, 1865 (Savas Beatie), by Noah Andre Trudeau

A few weeks before his assassination, Abraham Lincoln slipped out of Washington for his longest absence from the White House since becoming president—a 16-day get-away to Gen. Grant’s headquarters in Virginia. Little was heard about the two weeks and, according to Noah Andre Trudeau, most of it was wrong. Delving into contemporary accounts, the author sorts out Lincoln’s break from the often soul-crushing burdens of office. Civil War buffs will find much of interest in his day-by-day chronicle, yet his argument that Lincoln was somehow “changed” by those 16 days falls short. Doubtlessly, the doomed president returned to Washington refreshed, but any shift in his attitudes is difficult to document and, in any event, moot. Lincoln would die one week later.

Mission Failure: American and the World in the Post-Cold War Era (Oxford University Press), by Michael Mandelbaum

The end of the Cold War marked a shift in American foreign policy: without a viable opponent on the world stage, the U.S. shifted from containing potential enemies to reinventing other nations in America’s image, politically and economically. Michael Mandelbaum from Johns Hopkins International Studies School largely overlooks such nation-building precedents as the post-World War II occupation of Japan and Germany in favor of America’s late 20th century rush to influence China and Russia and build new institutions in the Balkans—and later the Middle East. With Iraq prominently in mind, Mandelbaum argues cogently that the U.S. failed, partly by lack of will (interest?) from the American public and partly because the world proved more complicated than Washington imagined.

Spies in the Congo: America’s Atomic Mission in World War II (PublicAffairs), by Susan Williams

It’s a story fit for a Hollywood spy thriller—and it’s true. Spies in the Congo recounts a little known aspect of the Manhattan Project: behind the frantic program to build an atom bomb was a mad scramble to secure the basic ingredient, uranium, whose best source were mines in a remote province of the Belgian Congo. The Nazis also wanted the uranium, but most of it was shipped safely to the U.S. thanks to a colorful band of Ivy League American agents with code names and pith helmets. They negotiated with local authorities of doubtful loyalties and exploited the labor of Congolese miners, many of whom died in circumstances that called to question the “moral authority of the struggle against fascism,” as put by the author, University of London senior fellow Susan Williams. 

To the Secretary: Leaked Embassy Cables and America’s Foreign Policy Disconnect (W.W. Norton), by Mary Thompson-Jones

Mary Thompson-Jones’ reflections on U.S. foreign policy are made in light of Julian Assange’s coup: the release of a quarter-million cables sent by American diplomats to the State Department. A former Foreign Service officer, and now International Studies Director at Northeastern University, Thompson-Jones makes light of Wiki-Leaks, perhaps too much so, but scores some clarifying points: the quantity of stolen cables is no measure of their worth; the opinions of diplomats in the field, if they are read in Washington at all, are no indicators of American policy; transparency is overrated. To the Secretary is valuable for underscoring “the fault lines between Washington’s worldview, by turn both overly neat and overly calamitous, and the minefields American diplomats walk through every day.”


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