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Matthew J. Franck
Professor and Chair of Political Science, Radford University
It is never not the season to consider the relation between American politics and the Christian faith espoused by some 85% of Americans. But the Christmas season—when determined secularists annoy our ears with "Happy Holidays!" and "Season's Greetings!"—may be a particularly appropriate time to ponder such things. Begin with American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile, by the late Richard John Neuhaus, who undoubtedly "met God as an American," just as he said he wished to do in this, his last book, which is full of wise Augustinian counsel for all Christians who wonder how to be at home in the city that is not their true home. Also excellent is Hugh Heclo's Christianity and American Democracy, the second of Harvard's Tocqueville Lectures to be published (the first being James W. Ceaser's superb Nature and History in American Political Development: A Debate). Heclo takes a panoramic view of our history and concludes persuasively that while Christianity has been good to America, America has not been so good to Christianity. Heclo worries about a "coming rupture" between serious Christians and a political culture from which they are alienated. Does he worry too much? Read it and decide for yourself.
Is Christianity even alive and well at America's most famous and prominent Catholic university? Not if you ask Charles E. Rice, the law professor emeritus who asks What Happened to Notre Dame?—a scorching critique of the university's decision to give an honorary law degree at its May 2009 commencement to the most pro-abortion president in American history. And if you want to begin the new year armed with unassailable arguments against abortion yourself, or against embryo-destructive medical research—arguments that do not rest on claims about specially revealed truths—then read Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen's Embryo: A Defense of Human Life.
But Christmas should not be all about heavy thinking and weighty issues. It should be about relaxation and entertainment as well. Breathes there a true American who does not love the films of John Ford? Give him Print the Legend: Politics, Culture, and Civic Virtue in the Films of John Ford, edited by Sidney A. Pearson, Jr., with essays on many of Ford's great westerns, and some of his other pictures as well. (Full disclosure: my wife and I wrote the essay on How Green Was My Valley.)
Do you wonder where to find the successor to Patrick O'Brian for thrilling historical fiction featuring men of action with interesting characters? Try Arturo Perez-Reverte's Captain Alatriste and the books that follow. Perez-Reverte, an admirer of Dumas, places his laconic, jaded, but noble Alatriste in the mean streets of 17th-century Madrid, fighting for truth, justice, and enough money to buy some more wine. More fully realized are the Matthew Hervey novels of Allan Mallinson, who deserves the kind of American "discovery" that enriched O'Brian after he had labored on the Jack Aubrey books for a number of years. Mallinson's hero is a young cavalry officer who fights under Wellington in the Peninsula and at Waterloo, then goes on to further adventures in Canada, India, Portugal, and South Africa. Hervey is a Christian gentleman struggling with faith and doubt, ambition and temptation, honor and duty—and he's a hell of a soldier. Winston Churchill would have understood him perfectly, and liked him. Begin at the beginning, with A Close Run Thing: A Novel of Wellington's Army of 1815, about the Battle of Waterloo.
And if the Christmas season simply demands the wisest kind of frivolity, start just about anywhere in the works of the inimitable P.G. Wodehouse. For guidance to Wodehouse's world (and to help seasoned hands remember which of his 92 books they've read and which they haven't), turn to Richard Usborne's Plum Sauce: A P.G. Wodehouse Companion. Just the thing if you can't remember in which book you last encountered D'Arcy "Stilton" Cheesewright!
Fellow in American Studies, the Claremont Institute
Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, by Jonah Goldberg
A scholarly and ground-breaking history of the Left, binding fascism and progressivism through shared intellectual roots. A big, important work.
Religion of Peace?: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn't, by Robert Spencer
One of many recent works by a seasoned scholar of Islamism. It shows why Christianity is worthy of Western civilization and its defense—and why Islam isn't.
Surrender is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations, by John Bolton
A powerful defense of American security by the consistently principled diplomat.
Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present, by Michael B. Oren
An insightful tour of the long history of our relations with the Middle East, written by Israel's Ambassador to the U.S.—a soldier, statesman, and great writer.
Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion, by David Gelernter
A powerful and wise journey from Puritanism to religious meaning today.
Jakub J. Grygiel
George H. W. Bush Associate Professor, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (Johns Hopkins University)
The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, by Edward N. Luttwak
The 1976 book on Roman grand strategy by the author stimulated a lively and productive debate among ancient historians, who had all but abandoned by then the study of grand strategy. Luttwak's new book on Byzantine grand strategy promises to be a worthy follow up.
Thucydides: The Reinvention of History , by Donald Kagan
Who else is better equipped to write about Thucydides than Donald Kagan?
Raid on the Sun: Inside Israel's Secret Campaign that Denied Saddam the Bomb, by Rodger Claire
A very different topic from those of the previous two book suggestions, but important and relevant nevertheless. This book chronicles the preparations and the execution of the Israeli raid on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq. It is a fascinating read. Among other lessons one can draw from it, is the point that Israeli strategists and military planners may be willing to execute operations that we, in the U.S., deem all but impossible, technically and politically. A lesson for the future as we face a potentially nuclear Iran.
Allen C. Guelzo
Professor of History and Director of Civil War Era Studies, Gettysburg College
Not having come up in the conventional way through either academe or "movement conservatism," I have to console myself with a sadly small circle of like-minded friends and a ponderously large collection of like-minded books. Of them all, I've found nothing more nurturing or illuminating for a good holiday reading vacation than...
The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy, by Thomas Sowell
Book after conservative book either chases the tail of current policy or exhumes the carcasses of past ideologies for another good kicking session. Sowell's argument is that what usually passes for political thought over the past century is really rooted in a series of attitudes, rather than policies or ideas. And truth be told, most people generally do interpret the world through the lens of four or five attitudes—which are all the more powerful for being attitudes, and therefore invisible to their holders and maddeningly impervious to evidence or reason. Sowell's extended essay is an act of epistemological self-awareness, flushing out into the open the "flattering unction" that, entirely apart from policies or ideas, makes the American Left so purblind to real-life consequences, so quick to substitute ridicule for discussion, and so utterly full of itself that it cannot imagine why anyone in Kansas or elsewhere would find fault with it. If you have never understood why the Left is so indifferent to the casualties that litter its passage or so confident of its sainthood, Sowell's analysis of the presuppositions of "the tragic" and "the anointed" will fill the bill like nothing you will ever read. My only complaint is that the binary division of political attitudes into only "tragic" and "anointed" is too simple; some room might have been made for "the ironic" or even "the comic." But that's my only complaint. The rest is pure gold.
The Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, by Harry V. Jaffa
This may be the only book by a political scientist which did not make me wish for a swift and merciful death. A student of Leo Strauss, Jaffa seized upon the Lincoln-Douglas debates at a time (in the 1950s) when Louis Hartz was still assuring us that all Americans really thought pretty much the same about politics, and when J.G. Randall, Avery Craven, and Roy F. Nichols were assuring us that the Civil War was brought on by blundering politicians and that Lincoln and Douglas weren't really arguing about all that much after all. Jaffa, on the other hand, read the Lincoln-Douglas debates and thought he saw the only American equivalent to Plato's Republic, with Douglas in the role of Thrasymachus, defending any majority's power to impose its will even if that will results in the enslavement of others, and Lincoln as Socrates, insisting that the purpose of popular sovereignty was to serve the good, not the convenient. This book, I suppose, did more to make me a Lincoln person than any other. It will do the same to you.
The Political Culture of the American Whigs, by Daniel Walker Howe
No American political party has been the butt of more Progressive jokes than Henry Clay's Whigs. Howe's book was therefore unusual—almost arcane—in blessing the Whigs with so much love and attention. But Howe had whetted his literary knife on an even more-arcane study of 19th-century Unitarian Harvard, The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861, and in the process, acquired an acute ear for both the interplay of morals and politics, and the symbolic and cultural gestures that accompany ideas. Howe thus defined the Whigs as a "political culture," a kind of ideological community made up of the symbols, habits, instincts, underlying the values of political participants before they were translated into actual issues or campaigns. It almost goes without saying that Howe just about single-handedly re-invigorated study of the Whigs as a middle-class resistance movement to the cynical Luddite mobilization of working-class Americans by the Jacksonian plantation elite. A prince of a book by a prince of American historians.
Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War , by Eric Foner
Nothing could be more surprising than to find the premier American red-diaper baby writing a dissertation for an unrepentant Stalinist mentor which describes in almost worshipful detail the anatomy of the Republican mind in the age of Lincoln. Eric Foner originally wrote Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men under Richard Hofstadter, and it represents a triumph of Foner's professionalism and craftsmanship over his personal preference for Madam Defarge's knitting to find that nothing opens up the principles of Lincolnian Republicanism so well as this book. In his close attention to the meaning and genealogy of political texts, or at least political ideas, and the causal effect these ideas had on actions, Foner identifies the basic components of the Republican political ideology, the principal partners in its creation, and its uneven but not unjust struggle with race. I cannot imagine this to have been his intention, but it's the sort of book which will have you singing (as they did in 1860): Ain't you glad you joined the Republicans?
Alonzo L. Hamby
Distinguished Professor of History, Ohio University
Truman and MacArthur: Policy, Politics, and the Hunger for Honor and Renown, by Michael Pearlman
Pearlman, a former professor at the Army Command and General Staff College, has his doubts about President Truman, but the burden of his analysis displays a MacArthur who seems out of touch with reality. Think the Inchon landing was a brilliant move? Think again. This solid and provocative study is among the best works on the Korean War.
Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947, by D.M. Giangreco
An authority on the high casualty estimates for the contemplated 1945-46 invasion of Japan—he believes they were well-founded—Giangreco lays out in far greater detail than any other historian the tactics and weaponry the Japanese military intended to deploy in order to make an invasion of the home islands too costly to contemplate. Atomic bomb revisionists with open minds will find his research sobering.
A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel, by Allis Radosh and Ronald Radosh
Authoritatively covering Jewish settlement in twentieth-century Palestine, sorting out benign and malign Zionist factions, probing the Anglo-American split on the issue, examining the complexities of Harry Truman's personal attitudes and political needs, the Radoshes have produced the best work yet on the U.S. decision to recognize Israel, minutes after its establishment in 1948.
Woodrow Wilson: A Biography, by John Milton Cooper
A renowned historian who has devoted a long career to study of the Wilson era, Cooper has given us a capstone work that for a generation will be the standard one-volume biography of a flawed but great president. Readers may be especially impressed by the careful social-intellectual analysis of its subject's pre-political years.
In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia , by Ronald Spector
Written for a general audience by an acclaimed scholar, this tightly organized book is a fine account of the endgame for Western Imperialism in East and Southeast Asia in the years after World War II.
Partners in Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace, by Mark Perry
A well-done narration of the occasionally tense relationship between two American icons, this book also intelligently probes profound Anglo-American strategic arguments that threatened to disrupt the Grand Alliance.
Daniel Walker Howe
Rhodes Professor of American History Emeritus, Oxford University
Professor of History Emeritus, UCLA
"Puff, puff, chug, chug, ding dong, ding dong. The little train rumbled over the tracks. She was a happy little train because she had such a jolly load to carry."
My favorite children's book is The Little Engine That Could. It is beautifully told and teaches the right moral lessons. There have been several versions of the story, and several editions are currently available, but the one my parents read to me as a little boy was published by Platt & Monk in 1930 and attributed to Watty Piper, which I have learned was a pseudonym.
The story tells how a locomotive carrying toys and food for children breaks down and seeks help from other engines to carry its cargo "over the mountain." Several engines refuse to help because they are too vain, too discouraged, or otherwise unmotivated. Then a little switch engine comes along eager to help. Although the smallest and most inexperienced of the locomotives, she shows the most initiative and succeeds in pulling the train over the mountain by dint of trying hard and thinking positively.
The story teaches at least two moral lessons: it is important to help someone in need, and hard work with a constructive attitude can compensate for physical disadvantages. Other features combine to make this a perfect story for young children. While the vocabulary is simple, the story is told in poetic language, with lines that virtually scan. Children readily identify with the anthropomorphized dolls, toys, and locomotives. There is considerable verbal repetition as one engine after another is interviewed and refuses help, so children easily memorize the story. It actually helped me learn how read, because after I had the story memorized, I connected the words I knew with the printed symbols on the page.
Brian P. Janiskee
Professor and Chair of Political Science, California State University, San Bernardino
Seven Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century, by Andrew Krepinevich
If you are looking for a reassuring treatise on America's readiness for conflict in the years ahead, skip this sobering assessment by Army veteran and military strategist Andrew Krepinevich. The author offers seven scenarios for possible conflict in the near future that could very well pose significant threats to America's national security. Each scenario consists of a chapter covering the present headlines to worst case scenarios that appear all too real. Krepinevich takes the reader through such nightmares as the collapse of Pakistan, nuclear terrorism at home, to a calculated assault on the world's "just in time" delivery system of critical products and materials. His treatment of a potential pandemic is eerily prescient, given events that occurred since the publication of this work. If one is concerned about the current and future direction of American national security policy, this book is a must read.
Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith
This novel is a grisly tour through the deadly contradictions of the Soviet Union under Stalin. A renegade MGB officer becomes entwined in an investigation of a serial killer on the loose in the Worker's Paradise, a land where such crimes, "officially," do not occur. As this agent digs deeper into the evidence, in a quest to enforce the law, he becomes the most sought after target of the Communist police state. This gripping read takes one inside the intricacies of a tyrannical regime at the height of its power and the apex of its hypocrisy.