The days of summer may seem wonderfully long, but the season itself is frustratingly brief. Shakespeare put it this way: “And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” Talk that way at the picnic table and friends may assume you have been in the heat for too long, but we get the point. For readers, summer is the opportunity to read books simply for the pleasure of reading them. No good book comes without bringing more than mere pleasure, but reading for fun is reading for sufficient reason. I read steadily throughout the year, across the range of literature. But my annual recommended summer reading list is always tilted (to say the least) to non-fiction. This year is no exception. I heartily recommend these ten books that combine great interest and a worthy story well told. The added benefit to each of these is a greater understanding of the world. Just consider that deeper understanding to be an added bonus.
1. Robert Kurson, Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon (Random House).
2018 is the year of so many 50th anniversaries, most of them tragic. One of those anniversaries is heroic. Fifty years ago, fresh from tragedy with Apollo 1, NASA made the seemingly mad decision to send Apollo 8 to the moon and back. The move was daring, and perhaps irresponsible. The Soviets were threatening to reach the moon first, and the Americans were determined to beat them. But the Saturn V rocket — still the most powerful machine human beings have ever developed — had never carried human beings into space. The mission could have ended in a tragedy over Christmas in 1968, with the astronauts slowly dying in an unrecoverable trajectory in space. Instead, it became one of the greatest moments in the human exploration of space, and an incredible story. The mission provided the residents of Earth the first unforgettable sight of an “Earthrise,” which inevitably raised deeper theological questions.
In this excerpt, Robert Kurson tells of the three American astronauts, Frank Borman (commander), James Lovell, and Bill Anders, deciding to read from Genesis 1-10 on Christmas Day 1968, during the live television broadcast from lunar orbit. Each astronaut read part of the passage:
“We are now approaching lunar sunrise,” Anders said, “and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.” No one at Mission Control, or anyone else, had any idea what the men were about to say. The astronauts’ wives and children leaned forward. While the Moon continued to move across television screens, Anders began: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” [Anders read, then Lovell, and finally Borman] “Borman continued, “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the Heaven be gathered together in one place. And let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. And God called the dry land Earth. And the gathering of the waters He called seas. And God saw that it was good.” Borman paused: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you–all of you on the good Earth.” A moment later, television screens around the world went dark. Inside Misson Control, no one moved. Then, one after another, those scientists and engineers in Houston began to cry.
2. Jim DeFelice, West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express (William Morrow).
Most Americans know something about the Pony Express. Most of what they know is probably wrong. The riders of the Pony Express are part of American history and national lore, but the lore tends to come at the expense of history. The Pony Express was, for a brief time, a vital communications link across the vast expanse of the American West. It’s most important moment was the news of the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States in 1860. Within months, the Pony Express was gone. The rise of the telegraph and the train (the transcontinental railroad) were part of the story, but so were business competition and the Civil War. But for a brief time, the Pony Express was one of the most powerful representations of America, with a network of very young men hired to ride like lightning across virtually half the nation. DeFelice tells the story well, separating fact from fiction over a century and a half after the last rider finished his ride.
The raw ingredients of the Pony story–young men, horses, hardships, and danger–are potent bits for any narrative, whether in a rodeo ring or the big screen. But there’s more to the Pony Express’s staying power than galloping horses and reckless young men. As important as Bill Cody and his shows were in keeping the memory of the service alive, I think it’s likely we’d remember it even without the great showman. The Pony is the perfect transport vehicle for the things we still value in America, and for the realities we as a nation continue to face: speed, courage, individualism . . . distance, time, and, yes, money. If the Pony riders were the brave archetypes of the American spirit racing across the American heartland, Russell and his partners were surely nineteenth-century venture capitalists. The fact that they failed so spectacularly is itself thoroughly American. If you’re going to fail, fail big.
3. Lewis E. Lehrman, Lincoln & Churchill: Statesmen at War(Stackpole Books).
Just a year after the release of his Churchill, Roosevelt & Company: Studies in Character and Statecraft, Lewis Lehrman is back with Lincoln & Churchill: Statesmen at War. An accomplished historian and biographer, Lehrman has written a book that looks at Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill through a new lens, considering these two towering historical figures as leaders at war. The book reveals both men in a new light, considering how each understood the world, conceived of statesmanship, and lead massive war efforts. The two men faced very different historical moments, but both were fueled by a clear understanding of their goals and obsessions. Both demonstrated leadership beyond all expectation, and both learned to lead by the force of both words and example. One was born into poverty on the American frontier while the other was born in the splendor of a duke’s palace. Both made their way into the annals of history, and the words and deeds of both men continue to shape the world today. My favorite part of the book is Lehrman’s consideration of the particular approach each man took to the English language, with both often using single-syllable Anglo-Saxon words in their speeches. Considering Lincoln and Churchill together was a stroke of genius.
The president and the prime minister would embrace their duty to educate, to persuade, to rally the public, by demonstrating steadfastness in crisis. President Lincoln concluded his special address to Congress of July 4, 1861: “And having thus chosen our course, without guile and with clear purpose, let us renew our trust in God, and go forward without fear, and with manly hearts.” Lincoln’s answers to questions were often simple and unselfconscious. A Union army officer reported the story of a “gentleman [who] was conversing with the President at a time during the war when things looked very dark. On taking leave, he asked the President what he should say to their friends in [slaveholding] Kentucky.” The officer recalled: “Tell my friends,” said Mr. Lincoln, drawing himself up to his full height, “there is a man in here!” In World War II, there lived a man without fear at 10 Downing Street. . . . The prime minister’s courage–proven as a young calvary subaltern in three imperial battles of the late 1890s–intensified as crises threatened. “Danger, the evocation of battle, invariably acted as a tonic and stimulant to Winston Churchill,” noted Major-General Edward Spears, who served as the prime minister’s personal representative in France as that nation collapsed before the German invasion. Of Prime Minister Churchill, Joseph Stalin said it best at the Yalta Conference: “There have bene few cases in history where the courage of one man has been so important to the history of the world.”
4. Donald Rumsfeld, When the Center Held: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency (Free Press).
The American political crisis of 1972-1974 is virtually unparalleled in the nation’s history–and for that we must be thankful. For most citizens today, the Watergate crisis and the fall of the Nixon presidency are distant memories, if remembered at all. One of the most neglected figures, unexpectedly central to this story, was Gerald Ford, the 38th President of the United States. Ford became Vice President of the United States in 1973 and President in 1974, without being elected to either office. Then, against all odds, he came close to being elected president in his own right in 1976. Rumsfeld, who was himself central to the story, gives us a front-row seat at one of the turning points in American history. More than anything else, Rumsfeld wants us to understand that Gerald Ford, who never wanted to be president until he unexpectedly was president, rescued the American presidency by his personal decency and calm. As a teenage political volunteer I worked for Ronald Reagan and against President Ford in the 1976 campaign for the Republican nomination. After Ford secured the nomination, I joined his campaign as a volunteer, mostly manning a phone bank. After the campaign of Reagan, fueled by ideas, the campaign of Gerald Ford was a let-down for me. But Donald Rumsfeld’s book reminds all of us of why we should be thankful that, when he had to choose the man who would shortly succeed him, Richard Nixon called Gerald Ford.
He understood from the beginning that he had taken the reins during an emergency, a constitutional crisis unlike anything our country had faced before. He was President, but he did not have a mandate from voters who had endorsed him in an election. But he understood the American people and their desire and indeed need for stable, competent leadership,and that was to be Ford’s priority–not scoring partisan points. ‘I am acutely aware,” Ford told the American people after sworn in by Chief Justice Berger in the East Room of the White House, “that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers. . . . I have not campaigned for either the presidency or the vice presidency,” Ford reminded the nation. “I have not subscribed to any partisan platform.” From the onset, Ford looked at his presidency not as a time to further a political agenda but a mission to bring trust and confidence back to the American government at a time when much of the public was convinced Washington had given up on both.
5. Kate Andersen Brower, First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents, and the Pursuit of Power (Harper).
The framers of the Constitution were not sure what to do with the vice presidency, so they did very little. Until the adoption of the 25th amendment in 1967, there was not even clear constitutional language about the succession of the vice president in the case of the death or removal of a president, nor any provision for the replacement of a vice president. The vice president was given almost no duties, other than serving as President of the Senate, and vice presidents have generally been bored and forgotten. Harry Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s last vice president, said: “The vice president simply presides over the Senate and sits around hoping for a funeral.” George H. W. Bush, vice president to Ronald Reagan, attended so many state funerals (including funerals for three Soviet leaders) that he simply quipped, “You die, I fly.” But the story of the modern vice presidency is more interesting than most Americans imagine, and Kate Brower focuses on the relationships between modern presidents, beginning with John F. Kennedy, and their vice presidents. Political junkies will find the book impossible to set down. The only warning: Be aware that the Vice Presidents are allowed to speak through their own words, and some of those vice presidents liked 4-letter words.
Fourteen vice presidents have become president, eight of them ascending to the highest office because of the death of the sitting president. The eight vice presidents who succeeded presidents who died in office are John Tyler (upon William Henry Harrison’s death in 1841), Millard Fillmore (upon Zachary Taylor’s death in 1850), Andrew Johnson (upon Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865), Chester A. Arthur (upon James Garfield’s assassination in 1881), Theodore Roosevelt (upon William McKinley’s assassination in 1901), Calvin Coolidge (upon Warren Harding’s death in 1923), Harry Truman (upon Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945), and Lyndon Johnson (upon John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963). In the post-World War II era, the vice presidency has become more and more consequential. “Vice presidents are generally an uninteresting lot,” Cheney admitted. “There are fascinating relationships now. I think the really consequential vice presidents are the ones who get to be president”–an ironic statement coming from the most powerful vice president in modern history. Beginning with Harry Truman in 1945 and up until George H. W. Bush, five out of nine presidents were former vice presidents: Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Bush–two by election, two by death, and one because of resignation.
6. Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic, Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man(Simon and Schuster).
It tells us a great deal about the power of popular culture that most Americans probably learned of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis from Bartholomew Marion Quint, the hardened shark hunter of the movie “Jaws.” In the midst of their own epic shark hunt, Quint told the crew from Amity about the sinking, when 900 men went into the waters, and only 316 survived. In his telling, most of the men in the water were eaten by sharks.
There is truth in that account, but the real story of the Indianapolis and its fate is a bigger story that “Jaws” could tell. The Portland-class heavy cruiser, once flag ship for Admiral Raymond Spruance and ship of state for President Franklin Roosevelt, was one of the most beautiful large ships in the Navy. She had suffered a devastating kamikaze attack and had just been repaired when she was sent on a secret mission to deliver the first atomic bomb to Tinian Island. Returning to port, the Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine attack. Of the almost 1,200 sailors on the ship, about 300 went down with the vessel. The 900 others went into the Pacific. They were in the middle of the vast ocean and no one would miss them for days. Miraculously spotted by a Navy plane after days at sea, only 316 men survived. The sinking of the Indianapolis remains the greatest sea disaster ever experienced by the U.S. Navy. The sharks did attack and the story is like a horror movie, but the rescue of the 316 did not end the story. The ship’s commander, Captain Charles B. McVay, was convicted in a Navy court-martial of dereliction of duty, but the court-martial proceeding was controversial from the start, and even Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Ocean Areas, did not believe Captain McVay should be blamed. The burden for the convicted officer was too much to bear, and he committed suicide years later, with a toy sailor in his hand.
And yet, amazingly enough, the story does not end even there. Fast forward to 1999 and the school project undertaken by a determined 13-year-old boy named Hunter Scott. The boy in Florida had heard about the Indianapolis when he watched “Jaws” with his father. As a sixth-grader he started a school project on the Indianapolis and would write to the survivors of the sinking. Eventually he came to believe that Captain McVay had been wrongly blamed. He got finally got the attention of political leaders in Washington. Then, as an eighth-grader, he, along with others, would testify before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. Captain McVay would eventually be exonerated.
This new book by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic, released only on July 10, is a good example of how a story can be set straight. In this case, and in this book, we confront a big story that badly needed setting straight.
This excerpt is from the book’s account of the 2005 reunion of Indianapolis survivors and their families. In an amazing sign of healing, among the guests at the event was Atsuko Iida, granddaughter of Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, who had commanded the Japanese submarine that sank the Indianapolis by torpedo attack. Hashimoto had written in defense of Captain McVay–an act probably without precedent in the annals of war. The reunion came after McVay’s exoneration by Congress:
At the banquet that night, a procession of speakers paid homage to the Indianapolis survivors, the families of the lost at sea, and also the rescuers, many of whom had come. To close out the evening, per long tradition, Glenn Morgan climbed onto the stage as he did each year to lead the crowd in singing a final song, “God Bless America.” Morgan stepped up to the microphone. “Now, we haven’t done this before,” he said, “but what I’d like to do is to have all the children come up here.” The banquet hall burst into applause as the children and grandchildren of survivors and lost-at-sea families began streaming toward the stage. School-age children weaved their way through banquet tables, while parents led their preschoolers by the had. ‘That’s right, come on ya’ll,” Morgan said from the stage, beckoning. From a table near the front where she sat with her husband and sons, Atsuko Iida watched the children wending their way forward. She glanced at her own two boys, unsure. Suddenly, the Indy families seated around her began motioning her toward the stage, encouraging her with smiles: “Yes, Atsuko! You, too! Go up there . . . go!” Nervously, Atsuko stood. Taking her sons by the hands, she began making her way toward Morgan and the large group of gathering children. In this hall, there was no more room for hatred.
7. Taylor Downing, 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink (Da Capo).
More than once, the world has stood on the precipice of nuclear war. In the most famous of these incidents, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the world’s leaders were aware of the danger and the drama was lived out before a global population holding its breath. Not so in 1983, when the world stood yet again on the brink of nuclear war. In the crisis moments of 1983, over twenty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the leaders of both the United States and the Soviet Union failed to understand how close nuclear annihilation had come. Arguably, it was as closer than any other moment in the Cold War. In the United States, President Ronald Reagan was rebuilding U.S. armed forces and, as Taylor Downing explains, Reagan really did see the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire,” and he refused to recognize the Soviet regime as a permanent fact. The Cold War was, to Reagan, a battle of ideas and ideologies that he intended the U.S. to win. In the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov, the former KGB chief, had become General Secretary in 1982, upon the death of Leonid Brezhnev. Andropov was terminally ill and paranoid, as was his regime. Meanwhile, events escalated in 1983 as the Soviets shot down a wayward 747, Korean Airlines flight 007, and the U.S. and its allies began a massive nuclear war game known as Able Archer 83. The Soviet spy system was certain Able Archer was the start of a real nuclear war. As we now know, it was almost true . . . by accident.
The situation had reached its most dangerous point. If the Soviets, straining at the leash that November day in 1983, had launched their nuclear weapons, Armageddon would have followed. Tens of millions would have been killed directly by the impact of the missiles across western Europe and the United States, from Verona to Vermont, from Newcastle to New York. This would have triggered the firing of the massive arsenal of U.S. nuclear missiles in retaliation, from the huge silos in the Midwest and from submarines situated across the oceans of the world. U.S. commanders had long talked of blasting the Soviet Union back into the Stone Age. Tens of millions of Soviet men, woman, and children would have perished. Hundreds of millions mare around the world would have lost their lives as a consequence of the nuclear radiation that would be scattered across continents, carried by winds and rain, and countless millions more as a result of the starvation and chaos that would follow in what was called the ‘nuclear winter.’ It would not only have been the end of human civilization but probably the end of most forms of life on Earth. Some people believed that only the cockroach and the scorpion would have survived.
8. Arthur Herman, 1917: Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder(Harper).
We can count only twenty centuries from the time of Christ until our own time. The cataclysmic Twentieth Century looms in our immediate memory, and the events that shook the world in 1917 continue to shake the world now. Arthur Herman takes us back to 1917 and to the story of how the United States entered and exited World War 1 and the story of how the Bolshevik Revolution transformed Russia into the Soviet Union. Those stories cannot be told without the characters of Vladimir Lenin and Woodrow Wilson–one a communist revolutionary and the other a stern moralist who was determined to remake the world in his own image, according to his own internationalist vision for the League of Nations. Herman is no relativist, and he presents Lenin and communism in candor and horrifying honesty. At the same time, he clearly (and rightly, in my view) understands Woodrow Wilson as a dangerous man, driven by his own personal moral vision and staking his presidency on his failed vision of the League of Nations. Both men, Herman argues, contributed to the birth of what he calls the “New World Disorder.” The book is timely and important.
They [Lenin and Wilson] were also in their own ways both secular millennialists. They saw the world and mankind around them as fallen, but they believed there was a final, destined age of redemption coming–not through a Second Coming of Christ, as conventional Christian millennialists have believed, but through a Final Coming of History, a great convergence of global fire into a single, coherent whole. Their total commitment to these beliefs made them both self-righteous, usually infuriatingly so. Yet there were also important differences. Lenin’s background and experience made him a more brutal man than Wilson; he was capable of overseeing acts of violence that Wilson would have been horrified to contemplate, let alone commit. Lenin’s correspondence is full of references to machine guns, bombs, and shooting and killing opponents; Wilson’s is not. At the same time, both men dismissed those who opposed them as nor just wrong-headed or misguided but evil. They could be unbelievably vindictive toward those who they thought were thwarting or betraying them or blocking the path to their chosen paradise on earth. And both could be cunning and unscrupulous when they believed the ends justified the means, as when Lenin happily cooperated with the German government to get himself installed in Russia, and when Wilson was willing to compromise one after another of his Fourteen Points in order to get his League of Nations. Finally, both were revolutionaries, men who dedicated themselves to overthrowing an existing world system. in order to build a new, and in their minds, more perfect system. By and large, they succeeded in overthrowing those old systems, although what they created instead in their lifetimes turned out to be unqualified disasters.
9. Helen Rappaport, The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family(St. Martin’s Press).
Of all the tragic events of the 2oth century, the transformation of Russia into the Soviet Union is one of the most unspeakably tragic. The Bolshevik Revolution led to the deaths of tens of millions in Russia and within its communist orbit. But there was not just one Russian revolution in 1916-1918. Russia was descending into madness, and that madness was symbolized, most tragically, in the Romanov dynasty. That dynasty, infamously ruling for over 300 years, would come to a horrifying end, with the entire imperial family, the deposed Tsar, Nicholas II, and his Tsaritsa, Alexandra Feodorovna, their four daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, and the Tsarevich (and only son) Alexey Nikolaevich, only aged 14, shot to death in a basement in Yekaterinburg. Nicholas was inept and seemingly unable to respond to unfolding events, and his abdication only made the crisis worse. With Red and White armies at civil war within Russia, the Bolsheviks quickly came to the conclusion that they could not afford to allow the imperial family to live. But why were they not rescued by their powerful relatives — some of Europe’s most powerful monarchs? Helen Rappaport is the right person to tell that story, and the story remains important, even a century after the gruesome events that haunt Russia even now.
George’s [Britain’s King George V, first cousin to the deposed Tsar Nicholas II] scrupulous attention to the position of the constitutional monarch — or, moe accurately, parliamentary monarch — meant that he was obligated to respect the Coronation Oath that he had sworn in 1910 to put national interests first at all times. His government had been voted into power by the will of the people, and the will of the British people in 1917-18 was seemingly that the Romanovs were not welcome. And while it might be easy retrospectively to say that the threat to his throne was exaggerated and that a republican-style uprising on the streets of London was in fact highly unlikely, one has to view the King’s reaction in the context of 1917 and not that of 100 years later. In all his decision-making, King George V’s forceful and uncompromising wife Queen Mary supported him quietly but firmly behind the scenes. She, if anything, was even more determined to preserve the continuity and stability of the British throne, in much the same way that Tsaritsa Alexandra had vigorously defended it in Russia. Would Nicholas ever had capitulated and signed the abdication if Alexandra had been in the room at the time? No. Never.
10. Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias, Above and Beyond: John F. Kennedy and America’s Most Dangerous Cold War Mission (Public Affairs).
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 remains one of the most dangerous and important events of the 20th century, and the accounts of the crisis available since the 1990s and the fall of the Soviet Union are spellbinding — if terrifying. In this new book, Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias go back and combine two important stories into one great narrative. They combine the story of the U-2 aerial spy program and the Cuban Missile Crisis into a story better than anything a fiction writer could imagine. The truth is far more interesting–and important–than fiction. President John F. Kennedy is at the center of the account, and understandably so. But the authors tell the stories of others as well, from U-2 pilots to Soviet leaders. The Cuban Missile Crisis happened within my own lifetime, as did most of the Cold War. I was a toddler in Florida when the crisis unfolded in 1962. Had events gone otherwise–and they almost did–I might not be alive to tell of this book.
It is chilling to think that just two men, Kennedy and Khrushchev, could decide the fates of so many. And even today, the fact that the nuclear ‘football’–a set of codes ensuring that the military knows an order to fire a nuclear missile is coming from the president rather than a maverick or an imposter–travels everywhere the president goes serves as a reminder of how much power rests in one person’s hands and how important it is that this individual retain composure no matter what pressure and advice he or she is receiving. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy found safeguards of this kind woefully lacking and insisted on a more foolproof way for the military to know it was dealing with the president. The safeguards he desired are in the mechanics of today’s nuclear football, but the ultimate authority over the decision still rests with one person, the commander in chief. . . . Kennedy and Khrushchev instinctively knew that the longer the crisis went on, the shorter the odds that someone at a lower level would act without consulting them. Still, neither leader was going to walk away from his duty to safeguard his country and give the other side the upper hand militarily or in terms of world dominance and influence. They had to strike a deal in which both sides seemed to win.
Reading a book is a good book’s first pleasure, but telling other readers about a good book is also a privilege. Read some of these good books before summer’s lease runs out.