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Falling back with looks at the past

Fall Books: Twenty-five history books and biographies in a trying year

Falling back with looks at the past

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

Where have you gone, Dwight Eisenhower? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. 

Based on mail from WORLD members, many are reading more during coronavirus time—and history books plus biographies or autobiographies remain their favorites. So as we spiral toward the Nov. 3 presidential election, three new biographies of the mid-20th-century general and president are worth a look. In this 75th year since the end of World War II I’m also recommending five more books connected to the war and 17 other well-­written histories.

First, the Eisenhower books, which show that the 34th president is thrice-blessed in biographers. Granddaughter Susan Eisenhower is a good writer, and her How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower’s Biggest Decisions (Thomas Dunne, 2020) shows his strong character and work ethic. I didn’t expect the whole truth from a family member, so Jerry Bergman’s God in Eisenhower’s Life, Military Career, and Presidency (Wipf and Stock, 2019) provides interesting detail about religious beliefs. Paul Johnson’s Eisenhower: A Life (Penguin, 2014) is a good, brief account.  

Susan Eisenhower is particularly powerful in detailing her grandfather’s visits to concentration camps as the war was ending: “Eisenhower was unprepared for both the sights and the smells of these hellholes. Even miles outside the camp, the stench of rotting flesh was overpowering. As they entered, they saw corpses piled up like cords of wood, hastily dug trenches, and emaciated survivors who looked like walking cadavers.” Tough Gen. George Patton refused to enter some rooms, saying he would get sick if he did so, but Eisenhower visited “every nook and cranny” and came out saying “he had never seen anything equal to what they had seen that day; that no punishment was too great for a people who could do things like that.” 

Eisenhower’s reaction should be kept in mind as we read Sinclair McKay’s The Fire and the Darkness: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945 (St. Martin’s Press, 2020). McKay, like Kurt Vonnegut before him, suggests that the firebombing of the German city (an attack as deadly as the atomic destruction that would soon come to Hiroshima and Nagasaki) grew out of a brutal bureaucracy at work, killing because it could. But with Germany reeling in February 1945, Americans and Brits wanted to make sure World War II would not end as World War I did, with a future dictator able to claim the German defeat was a stab in the back. The Allies understood that their enemy was not only Hitler but an entire society given over to evil—much like ancient Israelites saw the Canaanites. 

And how did it all begin? Peter Fritzsche’s Hitler’s First Hundred: When Germans Embraced the Third Reich (Basic, 2020) is a cautionary tale: Hitler gained power early in 1933 through backroom political maneuvering, but 100 days later his mass political support was evident. Saddest of all: Hitler during the first radio address to the German people as leader vowed his new government would “take Christianity under its firm protection,” for it is “the basis of our entire morality.” His atheism later became evident, but some “German Christians” went along with a plan to replace the Old Testament with “100% German mythology—Wotan for Moses, Siegfried for Saul.” Frederick Taylor’s 1939: A People’s History of the Coming of the Second World War (Norton, 2019) details the war’s start. 

I also recommend Last Letters: The Prison Correspondence, 1944-45 by Freya and Helmuth James von Moltke (New York Review Books, 2019). Hitler’s minions hanged resistance leader Helmuth, 37, in January 1945. A sympathetic prison chaplain helped him exchange letters with his wife during the last four months of his life, when every day brought possible execution and the prisoner wrote with understated prose, “There is a great deal of stress involved if you can be taken away at any minute between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. to be executed.” His last letter: “I’m ready and willing to entrust myself to God’s guidance. … Farewell, my love. May the Lord watch over you and us.”

Tough-minded readers might pair those books with Brian Reid’s The Scourge of War: The Life of William Tecumseh Sherman (Oxford, 2020). President Rutherford B. Hayes called Sherman “the most interesting and original character in the world,” and Reid details the intellectual general’s rare combination of thought and action that made him both a military innovator and a hater of what he had to do to win. Sherman did not exactly say “war is hell,” but he told the mayor of Atlanta in 1864, “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.” He repeated that observation before a crowd of veterans and their family members in 1880: “There is many a boy here today who looks at war as all glory, but boys, it is all hell.”

While we’re on biographies: Nearly two millennia ago the Roman essayist Suetonius acidly profiled emperors like Nero and Caligula in Lives of the Twelve Caesars, available in many editions—but I like the abridged version, in a new translation, cleverly titled How To Be a Bad Emperor (Princeton, 2020). Robert Hutchinson’s The Death of Hitler (Regnery, 2020) is a thorough account of what happened to the worst emperor. Hitler should have had a chapter in another of this year’s Regnery books, Scott Rank’s sadly entertaining History’s 9 Most Insane Rulers. Among Rank’s subjects: Caligula, Kim Jong Il, and King Charles VI of France (who thought he was made of glass).

Turning from the ridiculous to the sublime, I learned a lot from Gerald Bray’s Preaching the Word With John Chrysostom (Lexham, 2020), which humanizes the fourth-century preacher. In one of his sermons, Chrysostom noted that God cursed the serpent and the ground, not the man. God thus gave Adam a chance to regain spiritual health: “When we judge the guilty, we should not berate them harshly or display the savagery of wild beasts toward them, but employ as much long-suffering and mercy as we can, because we are dispensing justice to our fellows, and out of a sense of kinship with them we should temper justice with love.” But Chrysostom didn’t do that in regard to Jews, whom he attacked in harsh terms that anti-Semites in succeeding centuries imitated.

Another provocative book, Peter Thuesen’s Tornado God (Oxford, 2020), shows how theologians and others over the centuries have thought about God’s providential control in the light of unpredictable twisters. Puritan divine Cotton Mather emphasized God’s sovereignty but also man’s responsibility, saying, “If Adam had not Sinned, there had been no hurtful storms known on the earth.” Eliphalet Adams told his congregation that “even when Storms and tempests are raised by Satan … they are still under God’s Ordering and Government. And no more Damage shall be done thereby than he is pleased to permit.”

Nineteenth-century pastors tended to emphasize education by tornado: God sent one in 1821 “to teach man his impotence,” and another in 1840 because “Never does man more deeply realize his utter helplessness.” Similarly, the St. Louis “Great Cyclone” in 1896 served “to teach man that in his fallen condition he is a creature incapable of self-government.” One St. Louis pastor said the “tornado has done more to make the people of this city think upon the serious problems and duties of life than anything else that has happened in years.” Sadly, when Thuesen near his book’s close turns from historian to pundit, he complains about the “evangelical shibboleth of biblical inerrancy.”

And what of the human tornado, Karl Marx, and his followers? Paul Kengor’s The Devil and Karl Marx (TAN Books, 2020) explores Satanic fascinations from Karl Marx to the Frankfurt School to radical feminist Kate Millett, author of Sexual Politics. Others left a better legacy: Clare Carlisle’s Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard (FSG, 2020) shows how the Danish philosopher wrestled with the Bible. And others were and are confused. John Kaag’s Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life (Princeton, 2020) mixes personal confession with a thoughtful look at James, author in 1903 of The Varieties of Religious Experience. That book is fascinating for its secular equivalent of a Christian’s born-again experience: James wrote of sick souls hitting rock-bottom, at which point they had to be “twice born” to avoid committing suicide. 

Tim Tran’s American Dreamer: How I Escaped Communist Vietnam and Built a Successful Life in America (Pacific University Press, 2020) shows how he left his homeland with 350 others on a rickety boat, survived pirate attacks, and finally reached Oregon. Tran summarizes “many people’s last hope: that no matter who else rejected them, the United States would take them in.” Two histories examine the history and political leanings of our largest group of recent immigrants. Geraldo Cadava’s The Hispanic Republican (HarperCollins, 2020) shows how Republicans alienated Hispanics, George W. Bush won back many, but the GOP has again lost most. Benjamin Francis-Fallon’s The Rise of the Latino Vote (Harvard University Press, 2019) provides the backstory through a detailed examination from Viva Kennedy to Ronald Reagan. 

I can’t resist mentioning two journalism histories I really enjoyed. Stephanie Gorton’s Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America (Echo, 2020) shows how early in the 20th century McClure’s 400,000 readers learned about big city corruption and corporate power grabs through the enterprise of editor McClure and star reporter Tarbell. Gorton captures the excitement: “McClure’s keenness for stories that helped readers imagine the future and understand the present was infectious.” McClure helped make famous many writers he hired, including Willa Cather, Rudyard Kipling, and Lincoln Steffens. Cather wrote about McClure’s young reporters, “You often thought them a little more able than they really were, but those who had any stuff in them at all tried to be as good as you thought them, to come up to your expectations.”

McClure, though, also inspired confusion: Tarbell found “his editorial direction could be frustratingly vague, as when he shot her a request for ‘something startling.’” But Steffens understood investigative reporting. When one corporate executive declined an interview by saying, “I don’t care for write-ups,” Steffens replied, “I don’t propose to write you up … I want to write you down.” Most people, though, wanted to be known, as a writer nicknamed “the Cynic” understood a century before selfies became fashionable: “Click! Click! Click! / … Everybody posing, smirking, attitudinizing! / Trying to look their best while being photographed, / Trying to look intellectual unconscious, beautiful!”

Nancy Cott’s Fighting Words (Basic, 2020) tells of journalism’s next generation through portraits of four leading foreign correspondents in the 1920s and 1930s: Dorothy Thompson, John Gunther, Vincent Sheean, and Rayna Raphaelson. It was a great time to be a magazine freelancer, since with radio an infant, television unborn, and the internet hardly imagined, 2,500 newspapers and dozens of national magazines were hungry for stories. Cott fluently describes career-making scoops and propagandistic swoops, but also marriage-breaking stoops into adultery and homosexuality.

Finally, here are quick mentions of four history books that will be shortlisted on our Books of the Year (Dec. 5) issue. I’ll review Christopher Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties and include a full Q&A with Daniel Chirot, author of You Say You Want a Revolution? Radical Idealism and Its Tragic Consequences. Our Aug. 1 issue included a Q&A about War Fever, a book on the 1918 pandemic. I’ll also have a full review of Tracy Campbell’s The Year of Peril: America in 1942 (Yale, 2020): Hitler did not think Americans could pull together as we did. If we think 2020 a hard year, it’s good to remember that Franklin Roo­sevelt’s first name for World War II was the “Survival War,” since the U.S. was fighting for “the survival of our civilization, the survival of democracy, the … survival of what we have all lived for.”

Wolfgang Suschitzky/Popperfoto via Getty Images

(Wolfgang Suschitzky/Popperfoto via Getty Images)

H.G. Wells, historian

The year 2020 is the 100th anniversary of one of the most influential books of the 20th century, The Outline of History by H.G. Wells. It was a huge bestseller in 1920 and still popular in 1964, when I read it and declared myself an atheist. Wells, who was also a skillful science fiction writer, appealed to my sense that children might believe in God, but at age 14 I thought: “Time to grow up and believe in Darwinian evolution and socialism.”

The Wells doctrine is now more popular than ever at schools and colleges in both the United Kingdom and the currently Disunited States. His is the evolutionary vision of mankind “at first scattered and blind and utterly confused, feeling its way slowly to the serenity and salvation of an ordered and coherent purpose.” 

That sounds pretty mellifluous, and Wells clearly had learned to write bestsellers: Who’s against “serenity and salvation”? But I read during days of social isolation his first major work as a social and political commentator, Anticipations (1902). In that he did not hide what he felt about the “swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people. … The world is a world, not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go. … It is their portion to die out and disappear.”

Similarly, in 1902 Wells truthfully argued that, for those who read and believed, “Darwin destroyed the dogma of the Fall upon which the whole intellectual fabric of Christianity rests. For without a Fall there is no redemption, and the whole theory and meaning of the Pauline system is in vain.” But 18 years later he merely complained how “foolish attempts were made to suppress Darwinian literature. … In the end men may discover that religion shines all the brighter for the loss of its doctrinal wrappings.” 

The greater success of Wells in 1920 than in 1902 demonstrated once again that you can subvert more minds with honey than with vinegar. A century later, professors in some Christian colleges sell a mild version of Darwinism (under the label “theistic evolution” or even “evolutionary creationism,” a PR genius term) and claim that it will preserve faith in Christ, rather than kill it. —M.O.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.