10 Books that Reveal Secret Histories

To paraphrase former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, when it comes to history, there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknowns unknowns. It’s that last category that’s the most fascinating; it’s very easy to assume you know more or less everything you need to about history, but occasionally, one of those unknown unknowns—those events that never made headlines, and have long since been forgotten or obscured—come to light, and change everything. The 10 books below offer perspectives on history that remained hidden for a long time. Reading them now will give you a better grasp on the world around you.

Directorate S, by Steve Coll
The relationship between the United States and Pakistan is crucial to American interests in the region. Pakistan’s Directorate S is a secret group within Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) charged with prosecuting illegal operations. In Afghanistan, Directorate S and the CIA often find themselves at odds while trying to maintain a fiction of cooperation between some of the most uncomfortable allies in history. Taking an objective. non-partisan view of the politics and cultures of three nations and several non-nation groups (such as the Taliban), Coll paints a complex picture of realpolitik that offers hints of what the future of the region and U.S. policy might bring, while revealing new information about events that have been hidden from public view for decades.

Rise and Kill First, by Ronen Bergman
Israel’s Mossad is widely considered to be one of—if not the—most effective intelligence organizations in the world, and the Israel Defense Force, one of the most effective armed forces. But what has truly set Israel apart from other nations is its unrepentant embrace of targeted, state-sponsored assassination in the service of national survival. Bergman leverages access to some of the most important players in Israel’s government, intelligence services, and military to craft a definitive history of a nation that much of the world wishes to destroy, and the extraordinary means undertaken in its defense. His inclusion of extremely detailed descriptions of covert operations gives this book a bit of a thriller edge, while never losing sight of the ethical quandary these policies inevitably spark.

Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly
Not everyone knows that the word “computer” once referred to a human being who literally computed sums by hand. And not everyone knows the names Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine—or at least they didn’t, until Shetterly’s book arrived, followed by the award-nominated film adaptation starring Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer. These patriotic, courageous women were instrumental in making America’s early space program a success, despite the institutional racism and prejudice of the pre-Civil Rights Jim Crow era. Their story isn’t just one of incredible achievement, it’s a lesson in how easily people can be erased from history when the system itself is flawed.

Blitzed, by Norman Ohler
The Nazis, known dabble in weird science and the occult, were pretty bonkers in general, aside from being flat-out evil. But in this book, Ohler makes the case that they were also pretty much stoned the entire time too—even Hitler himself. Ohler goes beyond the stimulants issued to the soldiers (think what was essentially crystal meth—a pretty common practice, one shared by the U.S. army to this day) to detail the truly awe-inspiring amount of stimulants and euphorics consumed by top Nazis. He even speculates that, rather than suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Hitler’s erratic behavior and frail appearance toward the end of the war were due to withdrawal symptoms after the Allies bombed the factory manufacturing his pills. To say that World War II would have been very different if the Nazis had been sober may be the understatement of the 20th century.

Radium Girls, by Kate Moore
If someone questions the need for laws protecting workers from the deprivations of profit-seeking companies, you might think of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. But this story is just as tragic: in the early 20th century, more than a dozen women were employed to paint watches with luminous paint made from the radioactive material radium. These women were fine artists, able to manipulate their brushes expertly, often using their mouths to twist their bristles to a fine point in order to complete the detail work. Soon after, many began suffering terrible medical problems, including lost teeth and disease jawbones, sparking a decades-long legal and medical battle that redefined worker’s rights and workplace safety.

Medical Apartheid, by Harriet A. Washington
Most people are familiar with the horrific Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which the U.S. government allowed 600 black men sick with syphilis to go untreated so the disease could be studied, but Washington points out that this is merely the most famous instance of shocking racism within the scientific sphere. We tend to think of doctors and scientists as fair-minded and objective, but after reading this book, you’ll know better. From slaves sold off for medical experiments, to hospitals waiving fees for deceased black patients solely so they could claim the bodies for anatomy lessons, to the prison populations used for involuntary studies, a secret and shameful history of abuse is chronicled here.

High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic, by Glenn Frankel
Stories of the McCarthy Era and the blacklisting of Hollywood figures who had ties to the Communist Party are well-known, but less widespread is the knowledge of how this shameful period in America’s past directly affected the films made during those years. Frankel studies one of the most famous movies of all time, the 1952 Western High Noon—the story of a marshal abandoned by his friends and neighbors after he is targeted by a gang of criminals—and shows how the story purposefully parallels what was happening in Hollywood in the 1950s. The film’s screenwriter, Carl Foreman, was hauled in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and when he refused to name possible communists, he was blacklisted. It took him more than a decade to make his way back into something resembling his former career. Reading this will transform the way you look at a classic film.

The Dawn of Detroit, by Tiya Miles
When people think of slavery in the U.S., they usually think exclusively about the states that eventually formed the Confederacy, and assume the vile institution was nonexistent, or at least rare, in the North. Miles’ eye-opening book debunks this assumption, telling the forgotten history of slavery in Detroit, beginning under French rule (when the slave population was primarily Native American—and female) and continuing long after the American Revolution placed Detroit under American control. Even such a well-explored historical subject is riddled with stories buried over time. Miles’ exploration of this little-known facet of history will force you to reconsider all of your assumptions about the story of race in this country.

Never Caught, by Erica Armstrong
There are few American icons as iconic as George Washington. Even those who admit Washington’s limitations as a general and a politician generally hold him in high regard as the “father of our country.” Armstrong recounts a lost aspect of Washington’s story concerning the household slave named Ona Judge Staines, owned by the Washingtons, who managed to escape after coming into contact with free blacks in New York and the strongly abolitionist Philadelphia. Washington didn’t wish her well—he put immense effort and expense into hunting her down, hiring professional slave catchers and running numerous advertisements. This little-known aspect of Washington’s life will forever color your opinion of the larger than life figure.

Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr. Joseph Warren, the American Revolution’s Lost Hero, by Christian Di Spigna
The names of the major players in the American Revolution are familiar, but this book focuses on a name you probably don’t know. Joseph Warren was a key player in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War who is nearly forgotten today. Warren died in 1775 at the battle of Bunker Hill, and was slowly forgotten as other men stepped forward to play key roles in the story. But an argument can be made that without Warren—the man who sent Paul Revere on his epic journey, and who wrote the essays that helped inspired the Declaration of Independence—the Revolution might have gone very differently, or never even happened at all. Di Spigna offers a surprising story that will have you wondering why you weren’t taught about Warren right alongside Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington.

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