May’s Best History & Current Affairs

History doesn’t take any breaks; every day is filled with the current events that will be tomorrow’s history. Thankfully the smart, incisive writers who clarify and contextualize these events also don’t take any breaks, and so we can offer you another meaty list of fantastic history and current events titles, including the newest from the legendary David McCullough, a moving portrait of one of America’s most cherished traditions from Senator Tom Cotton, and a wake-up call regarding one of our most closely held freedoms from Mark R. Levin.

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, by David McCullough
David McCullough, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, returns with an in-depth study of the settlement of the Northwest Territory, telling the stories of the hardy and fearless pioneers who traveled into the unknown determined to enlarge and enrich our country with their bare hands and at risk of their very lives. The movement west began sooner than most people realize, with the first settlers—veterans of the Revolutionary War—arriving in Ohio in 1788. McCullough tells the story of the town they carved out of the wilderness through the eyes of five historical figures, who becomes characters in a story about bravery, tragedy, diplomacy, and the conquest of a wilderness that wanted nothing more than to sweep them aside.

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis, by Jared Diamond
Jared Diamond, another Pulitzer-winner best known for Guns, Germs and Steel, returns with a unique and fascinating look at history through the lens of psychology, applying trauma treatment protocols to entire nations in order to explain sudden policy shifts and course corrections, from Chile’s wild political swings in the 20th century, to Japan’s opening to the West in the 19th century, to the persistence of the institution of slavery in the U.S., to the Winter War between the U.S.S.R. and Finland. Diamond argues that nations either take an honest look at themselves after disaster… or they don’t, and that willingness or unwillingness to acknowledge hard truths is the determining factor in what happens next.

The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, by Rick Atkinson
A third Pulitzer-winning author this month, Rick Atkinson delivers the first of three books covering the Revolutionary War in astonishing detail. This initial volume takes the reader through the first 21 months of the conflict, beginning with Lexington and Concord in 1775 and leaving off in the winter of 1777. Along the way, Atkinson dives deep into the personalities on both sides of the battlefield, including men who defined the fighting, like Henry Knox and George Washington, and men who defined the struggle for hearts and minds around the world, like Benjamin Franklin. The result is one of the most detailed and comprehensive studies of the early stages of a war that seemed doomed to be a short and futile one for the Americans, but instead birthed a nation.

Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery, by Tom Cotton
After returning home from Iraq in 2007, Tom Cotton served for several months in the Third Infantry Regiment, also known as the Old Guard. Formed in 1784 in order to honor the memory of our fallen soldiers, the Old Guard stands over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery 24 hours a day, participates in ceremonies, and accompanies the president when he visits. In a powerful and detailed book, Cotton takes the reader through the history of this remarkable regiment, the requirements and procedures it presents, and his emotional recollections of his service to it, during which time he witnessed 11 burials on the country’s most hallowed ground. The book is a welcome reminder of the sacrifices that bind us together as a nation, and an absorbing exploration of an aspect of our country’s ceremonial life few know much about.

Unfreedom of the Press, by Mark R. Levin
Levin presents the argument that journalism is under threat like never before, not from government censorship or political oppression, but from a lack of honesty, transparency, and standards—in short, the press is being destroyed from within. Noting that, historically, the free press in this country has never been particularly objective and never made much effort to hide this fact, he sees the beginnings of supposed objectivity during the Progressive Era in the early 20th century as a turning point, transforming what had been an open process of championing political and policy goals into a shady, dishonest venture that is losing the faith of the people, and may cost us dearly.

Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save His Legacy, by Dan Abrams and David Fisher
Abrams and Fisher deliver a close examination of an mostly overlooked moment in 20th century: a 1915 lawsuit against former president Theodore Roosevelt. The libel suit, brought against Roosevelt by political boss William Barnes due to Roosevelt’s public assertions that he was a corrupt official, was a sensation at the time, highlighted by Roosevelt’s turn as a witness on the stand, where the full power of his personality and intellect came into view for a whole week. After 38 hours being badgered by Barnes’ lawyers, Roosevelt emerged unscathed, having made an incredible impression on everyone involved. This detailed study of the incident brings Roosevelt to roaring life, and is a treat for anyone who wishes we could somehow experience history ourselves to get a feel for its larger-than-life players.

This America: The Case for the Nation, by Jill Lepore
Harvard historian Jill Lepore argues that post-Cold War America has shied away from viewing itself as a single entity—a nation—in part because of the inevitable and unpalatable connotations of nationalism. But the time, she thinks, has come to embrace the concept again. Our country did not evolve to its present state as the result of individual threads, but rather as a nation of people sharing a coherent political and cultural identity, Lepore says, and it remains so despite the apparent divisions that exist between us. Further, she argues that if we don’t embrace our status as a single nation in due course, we risk leaving the future to the demagogues and populists who are more than happy to define the future for us. It’s a thought-provoking argument from one of the best historians working today.

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