What We’re Reading: Winter/Spring 2017

An Eight-Buck Book for Passing Around

Stephen Peters

My son Chris and I have a tradition of giving each other books as gifts. No neckties or fun socks for Dad. No latest hip music or some innovation in hockey sticks for son. Books.

We go for histories and biographies by solid historians and journalists. Doris Kearns Goodwin. Robert Caro. Rick Perlstein. Thoughtful, credible authors.

Our usual practice is to anticipate what the other would be excited to read, so when he sent me a copy of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, I was delighted. Just a week before its arrival I had heard a brief discussion with Snyder on NPR and had actually gone looking for a copy at my local book store. They didn’t have it in yet, so as soon as I opened Chris’ package and saw the title, I called him to say thanks.

“Read it and pass it along,” he told me. “I’m giving it to a few friends and telling them to pass it along, too. Everybody has been asking what they should do since the election. Reading this book should give us some ideas.”

Indeed. It is a practical guide for just that.

Snyder, Housum Professor of History at Yale, has written widely on European affairs. On Tyranny starts with the premise that “History does not repeat, but it does instruct.” While it is no anti-Trump screed, this slim volume does point out the symptoms of frightening tendencies in our present administration, sketching out relevant historical moments and the lessons we can draw from how citizens did and did not react to them. In chapters with titles like “Defend Institutions,” “Remember Professional Ethics,” “Stand Out,” “Believe in Truth,” “Establish a Private Life,” “Investigate,” and “Contribute to Good Causes,” we can get a sense of how to practically respond to and perhaps neutralize the frightening drift our politics seems to be taking.

That night I sat down with this little book and read it cover to cover in about two hours. The next day I went to a different bookstore and bought their last copy to give to a friend and ordered three more to also pass along to other friends. It’s an eight-buck book and won’t exactly break the bank. I encourage you to cough up thirty bucks or so to do the same.

Oh, and keep a copy for yourself to check into now and then.


Dangerous Blunders Past and Present

Leonard Lang

After seeing a fascinating, new PBS documentary about World War I in this centenary year of the United States’ entrance into the war to end all wars, now seemed a good time to finally finish a book I’d started a while ago that challenges conventional wisdom about that war.

This longstanding, common narrative has been that a brutal European war killing millions was completely stalled until the U.S., forced into the war by German shipping attacks, added massive numbers of fresh soldiers. This turned the tide of the war. America saved democratic Europe, while growing our world status and industrial might. Unfortunately, Wilson “lost” the fair-minded peace that he wanted, setting the stage for WWII.

Enter journalist Burton Yales Pines with America’s Greatest Blunder (RSD Press, 2013). Pines agrees with the usual main point–our entrance into the fighting made the difference in the war. But he also claims this was our greatest blunder because creating such a clear victory for the Allies led to Hitler, then WWII and the takeover of half of Europe by the Soviet Union. Quite a blunder indeed.

For Pines, if we’d only stayed home and had really been neutral instead of pretending to be neutral since the war’s start, the already decimated forces on both sides would have had to give up and declare a status-quo peace, leaving things much as they’d been before the war. This would have prevented the rise of Hitler who fed on Germany’s desire to reassert its power and status after overwhelming defeat and humiliation.

Pines makes a strong case, but alternate histories are always a bit suspicious. He seems to know this as well, taking a chapter at the end of his book to take on other appealing what-ifs, such as what if Wilson had negotiated his idealistic peace points as a precondition for joining the war instead of waiting until the end where he had less leverage. Or what if we hadn’t entered the war? Wouldn’t some far right or Communist left have still taken over Germany? Finding the root cause “what if” may be a matter of preference about where you want to start telling a story and how you like to assign culpability.

Pines also details how the U.S. never acted in any way neutral—letting England get away with constant violations of our maritime rights while condemning Germany’s violations and using Germany’s actions as the trigger for war. The country was ready for this partly due to constant English propaganda without reply, as Wilson favored the Allies while Germany had no retort after England cut all of its Atlantic cables for communicating with this side of the Atlantic. Wilson added to the massive misinformation with a sophisticated new propaganda agency of our own to rally the country. In addition, Congress passed sedition laws that stole the very liberties we claimed to be fighting to maintain, jailing former presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs (with a 10-year sentence) for giving an anti-war speech while ordinary Americans were beaten for even grumbling in a bar about the war’s progress.

The dangers go even beyond this loss of civil liberties. All the propaganda fostered hatred of the “Hun” and a need for a crushing peace to teach them a lesson. This unforeseen side-effect ironically helped undermine the very war goals Wilson stated and most desired—a fair and therefore lasting peace without victory or vindictiveness. In that goal, he was likely right.

Parallels in history are tricky, but when seeing whole groups being vilified again today, such as illegal and legal immigrants or Muslims, it’s hard not to notice what happened before when real issues became distorted and simplified into cartoon good and evil discussions. In addition, we again have a fake news industry that’s even more widespread, and again, though there’s more choices, people still getting stuck in only their own fixed point of view regardless of facts. In short, I’d argue we might benefit from looking at what happened 100 years ago and how small series of actions and misstatements based on false information led to such enormous consequences.

Pines’ book, written before the current political cycle, is not directly addressing this, but his well-written and thoroughly researched book clearly brings out the emotions and drama of those times, as well as informing us about its details. In addition, the what-ifs and especially the history of what in fact happened, may help us navigate better through today’s tumultuous and often fact-free political waters.