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Understanding America’s Past

New books on crime, war and the meaning of citizenship

Jun. 19, 2017
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The Black Hand: The Epic War Between a Brilliant Detective and the Deadliest Secret Society in American History (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), by Stephen Talty

As the 20th century began, Americans were terrorized by reports of a secret society, the Black Hand, that kidnapped, killed and blew up buildings—not for a cause but for extortion. More of a viral criminal concept than an organized crime syndicate, the Black Hand was rooted in Italian neighborhoods and embodied WASP anxiety over swarthy immigrants. Writing with a storyteller’s sense for detail and pace, Stephan Talty recounts the Black Hand and its most famous foe, the NYPD’s Joseph Petrosino, the first Italian-American police detective. In Talty’s account, Petrosino becomes a character worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster (starring Robert Downey Jr.?), a master of disguise who ran a network of snitches and rose against the prejudices of the NYPD’s mostly Irish cops.

George Washington: A Man of Action (Wisconsin Historical Society Press), edited by John P. Kaminski

Perhaps the success of Hamilton will prompt Americans to realize that the founders of our republic represent more than faces on dollar bills. George Washington: A Man of Action is the latest in a series of short books that draw from illuminating quotes by a particular founder followed by commentary about him from illustrious contemporaries. Washington modeled himself after the generals of the Roman Republic who reluctantly accepted the mantle of leadership and retired to their estates once their task was completed. “But as it has been a kind of destiny, that has thrown me upon this service, I shall hope that my undertaking of it is designed to answer some good purpose,” wrote his wife. Abigail Adams said this of Washington to her husband, John: “Dignity with ease, the Gentleman and the Soldier look agreeably blended in him.”

MacArthur’s Spies: The Soldier, the Singer, and the Spymaster who Defied the Japanese in World War II (Viking), by Peter Eisner

Peter Eisner writes vividly of Americans and Filipinos resisting Japan’s occupation of the Philippines through guerilla warfare and espionage. He assembles a cast of Hollywood-worthy characters in his non-fiction account, based largely on the extensive depositions he discovered from a postwar lawsuit by one of the participants, a torch singer who went under many names. Unfortunately, the singer was a fabulist with every reason to paint her role in the brightest colors during court hearings. Although Eisner tries to qualify and compare her account with a slim number of other sources, MacArthur’s Spies, while fun to read, won’t pass muster as the final word on the subject.

Madness Rules the Hour: Charleston, 1860 and the Mania for War (PublicAffairs), by Paul Starobin

South Carolina was the first state to secede—it’s where the Civil War began—and Charleston was the city that drove events forward. In Madness Rules the Hour, Paul Starobin vividly reconstructs the growing animosity of Charleston’s white population toward the federal government and, eventually, the United States. Fanning the discontent was a newspaper, the Charleston Mercury, whose publisher advocated secession on the grounds Washington threatened the South’s way of life and that Northerners and Southerners were two peoples. In the end, the fervor of Charleston’s working class, who feared job loss if slaves were freed, pushed discussion into action. Starobin doesn’t stint on fascinating details. Southern mobs, seeing themselves as rebels against tyranny, marched to the tune of La Marseillaise. The luckless commander of Fort Sumter, the flashpoint for war, was pro-slavery and pro-Union.

Plotting to Kill the President: Assassination Attempts from Washington to Hoover (Potomac Books), by Mel Ayton

In the early years of the republic, U.S. presidents often walked unguarded through the streets; in some administrations, the White House admitted visitors without appointments for an audience with the nation’s chief magistrate. But as Mel Ayton shows in Plotting to Kill the President, threats were hurled at America’s leaders from the onset. Some of the stories will be bizarre to contemporary ears: James Monroe was physically threatened in the White House by his treasury secretary. Abraham Lincoln was the first to fall to an assassin, but Andrew Jackson was menaced by Julius Booth, whose son fired the bullet that killed Lincoln. Ayton ends his chronicle with Herbert Hoover, threatened by the usual cast of the unbalanced and the disgruntled.

A Rabble of Dead Money: The Great Crash and the Global Depression, 1929-1939 (PublicAffairs), by Charles R. Morris

Most accounts of the Great Depression focus on Wall Street and blame or exonerate Herbert Hoover. Charles R. Morris’ A Rabble of Dead Money puts the Depression’s origins in a global context, tracing the crash to the human and economic cost of World War I that caused governments to make bad postwar decisions. A lawyer and banker-turned-historian, Morris examines widespread deflation in Europe, the collapse in agricultural prices and curbing of world trade, problems that “swept over America—the country that had the farthest to fall, and indeed fell the farthest,” he concludes. Measuring the statistics, Morris finds that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s often makeshift New Deal spurred significant economic growth through the onset of World War II when defense spending rocketed the U.S. economy to unprecedented heights. 

Remembering Reconstruction: Struggles Over the Meaning of America’s Most Turbulent Era (Louisiana State University Press), edited by Carole Emberton and Bruce E. Baker

As recently as the 1970s, school textbooks depicted the Reconstruction in lurid terms—a legacy of the influence Southern historians, pundits and novelists in depicting a gallant Confederacy crushed beneath the boots of Union troops, conniving Yankee carpetbaggers and incompetent freed slaves. After the ideals of the civil rights movement forced a reexamination of the period, the Reconstruction was reinterpreted as a missed opportunity for integrating freed slaves into the American commonwealth. The essays collected in Remembering Reconstruction examine “the struggle to define the meaning of Reconstruction.” In early years, opponents of federal programs to reform the South won the field. The racial superiority of whites, especially Anglo-Saxons, was assumed by American scholars well into the 20th century and arguments favoring the imperial domination of Filipinos, Cubans and Puerto Ricans drew from the same language the supported white dominance in the South. 

Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War (W.W. Norton), by Daniel J. Sharfstein

Gen. Oliver Otis Howard was so respected for his work among African Americans that Howard University was named in his honor. As head of the Freedmen’s Bureau after the Civil War, he tried to help the newly emancipated slaves gain civil and economic rights. Thwarted by intense opposition from Southern whites, he went west where he led a brutal campaign against the Nez Perce and their leader, Chief Joseph. Daniel J. Sharfstein, professor of law and history at Vanderbilt, was drawn to this 19th century American story by what appears paradoxical to the 21st century eyes—a humanist and oppressor coexisting in the same person. Thunder in the Mountains also considers the evolving concept of citizenship in the U.S. and the liberties it confers. 


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