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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Books, Books and Books

Good Reads for Winter

The Lonely Planet guidebook recent published a Top 10 list of the world’s greatest bookstores. (I’m happy to say I’ve browsed in three of the Top 10, including the stores that LP lists as No. 1 and No. 2.) That list of great bookstores got me thinking about the best books I’ve come across in the last few weeks. So in no particular order, here are a four good reads for winter. Two new presidential bios are out.

Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life is a big, sprawling book about the president we all know, but really don’t. As the Christian Science Monitor noted in its review: “From Washington’s churning emotions beneath a cool exterior to his love of ladies and dance, the hero of the Revolutionary War and America’s first president emerges as an admirable, flawed, and human figure.” In other words, a more interesting and approachable man and politician than the stone figure of statues and myth.

The long awaited final volume of Edmund Morris’ three-volume life of Theodore Roosevelt – Colonel Roosevelt – is also in the bookstores. I haven’t read it yet, but the NPR interview with Morris about the post-presidential life of the great TR was absolutely fascinating. The first two volumes of this trio were simply superb history and biography and, I’m betting, the final volume will be just as good.

The New York Times said of Morris’ opus that it “deserves to stand as the definitive study of its restless, mutable, ever-boyish, erudite and tirelessly energetic subject. Mr. Morris has addressed the toughest and most frustrating part of Roosevelt’s life with the same care and precision that he brought to the two earlier installments. And if this story of a lifetime is his own life’s work, he has reason to be immensely proud.”

Two new books on United States foreign policy in the post-war world deserve praise. Presidential historian Robert Dallek has produced an assessment of the post-World War II blunders of most of the world’s major leaders – Truman, Stalin, de Gaulle, Churchill, among others. The book – The Lost Peace – argues that the Cold War wasn’t inevitable and might well have been avoided.

Dallek reminds us, for example, that Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh spent significant time during his younger days in the United States, Britain and France. Ho’s guerrilla activities, aimed at the Japanese and Vichy France during the war, were all about Vietnamese nationalism. Dallek makes a compelling case that a lack of imagination on the part of American policy makers coupled with de Gaulle’s desire to maintain French colonies after the war pushed Ho toward open confrontation with the West. Ho repeatedly petitioned President Truman for acknowledgement of Vietnamese aspirations for independence. Truman never responded.

Another book of note examines the Cold War from the perspective of two giants of American foreign policy from the 1940’s to the end of the century. The Hawk and The Dove by Nicholas Thompson tells the story of the friendship and rivalry between “the hawk” Paul Nitze, a career Washington policy insider, and “the dove” George Kennan, a Soviet expert who spent most of his life trying to influence policy from the outside. Thompson is a deft storyteller and great researcher who is also Nitze’s grandson, but he never plays favorites.

As the Washington Post said, “In this important and astute new study, Nitze emerges as a driven patriot and Kennan as a darkly conflicted and prophetic one.”

Late in life the two brilliant men reconciled their political differences and Nitze, while never admitting it, came to embrace Kennan’s view that nuclear weapons must be reduced and eventually eliminated. This is a great book if you want to better understand American foreign policy from Roosevelt to Reagan.

If you’re not quite ready to tackle Sarah Palin’s latest, any one of these four very good books will provide real insight into American politics and history and provide a great way to spend a winter evening or weekend.

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