History Thread: Best Books Read in 2022

2022 was a rough year, but at least I got a lot of reading done. Right now I’m curled up with my Library of America edition of Bruce Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy, for a cozy, pro-Union narrative history of the Civil War. Here is a rundown of the Top 10 books I read this year, with brief capsule reviews.

#10. Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912 (2022, Donald Keene)

Donald Keene’s Emperor of Japan provides an exhaustive overview of the life of Meiji, whose 45 year rule (1867-1912) saw Japan evolve from a near-feudal state to modern world power. Coming to the throne at age 14, Meiji inherited a country in turmoil: its bakufu system of shoguns and rich landowners, along with an inward-looking policy, was rapidly collapsing as the country opened to foreign trade and influence. Meiji sided with the reformers, creating Japan as a modern nation-state of (relatively) liberal government, modern industry and trade and expansive foreign policy. Though this received considerable resistance from the bakufu and samurai classes, often violent, in a series of rebellions and assassination attempts against the Emperor that continued for decades after his assumption of powers. Keene makes the case for Meiji as a liberal reformer: he and his ministers created a Western-style constitution and parliament, made education more thorough and available to the public and established freedom of religion in a country that had long oppressed Christians and other minorities. On the other hand, his sense of nationalism encouraged Japan to build its military and assert its power abroad, with imperial campaigns in Formosa, China, Korea and the Russo-Japanese War that inspired both admiration and fear from Western powers (along with the lasting enmity of the countries Japan occupied). Meiji himself never comes fully into focus as a person (the most we get are accounts of his tumultuous family life, losing most of his children early, snatches of his poetry and occasional fretting about the bloodiness of his wars), which might be attributed to the Emperor’s godlike mystique preventing any but occasional anecdotes informing a biographer’s portrait. But Keene establishes his legacy as complex and fraught, embodying the strengths and failings of modern Japan; the island nation of strong identity, industriousness and forward energy; the militarist empire that sought to beat the Western powers at their own bloody game. Keene’s biography is thorough, sometimes dense but never less than readable; an admirable account of the first hinge point in modern Japanese history.

#9. All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (1998, Henry Mayer)

Henry Mayer’s All on Fire revisits the life of William Lloyd Garrison, antebellum America’s preeminent abolitionist. Mayer revises the common portrait of Garrison as an unreasonable fanatic who hurt rather than helped the abolition movement. From his early 20s as a young printer onward, Garrison put his talents and formidable energy to agitating against slavery: first as a columnist in Baltimore (where his writings earned him a brief stint in prison), then in Boston as editor of The Liberator, the country’s leading abolitionist paper, then as the movement’s unofficial leader. Through it all, Garrison weathered legal prosecution, ridicule, infighting, death threats and, in 1835 a full-scale mob that tried to murder him. One comes away impressed with Garrison’s ceaseless energy, physical courage and moral certainty that’s easier to appreciate it hindsight. At a time when abolitionism was a fringe even within the antislavery movement, he proved decades ahead of his time: he rejected colonization of freed Blacks to Africa, excoriated the “containment” of slavery through compromise and denounced gradual emancipation as a half-measure. Mayer’s portrait is clearly admiring, though he doesn’t stint on showing Garrison’s beliefs that ranged from eccentric (his embrace of various quack health fads) to counterproductive (burning a copy of the Constitution at one speech, describing it as a “covenant with death”). Certainly it’s easy to see why other abolitionists, from Wendell Phillips to Frederick Douglass, grew disillusioned with Garrison’s refusal to vote, disparagement of armed slave resistance or, in one speech, even advocated the secession of free states from the slaveholding Union. But Garrison’s fiery speeches, cutting rhetoric and stubborn clarity helped mainstream the idea that all men (and women – he was an outspoken feminist at a time when that was even more a fringe issue) are created equal, achieving apotheosis the Union victory in the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves. Garrison went to his grave having seen his lifelong campaign vindicated, but recognizing that the postwar status quo was better only by degree. A remarkable biography of a figure often vilified or overlooked, but worthy of greater recognition as a model for radical activism.

#8. Watergate: A New History (2022, Garrett Graff)

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, and a small flurry of new books on the subject (most of them forgettable, some like Dwight Chapin’s memoir risible). Garrett M. Graff’s volume marks the first effort at a comprehensive history of the scandal since the ’90s, taking full advantage of the breakthroughs in research of the past three decades. His narrative places Richard Nixon’s downfall in context of a career driven by paranoia and deceit: he views Nixon’s fear of enemies exposing the Chennault Affair (his meddling in the Paris Peace Talks before the 1968 election) as the Rosetta stone underpinning all his actions, causing him to overreact to the release of the Pentagon Papers and unleash a wave of corruption and lawbreaking unparalleled in postwar American politics (until, well). Perhaps that’s a little too convenient, but Graff makes a good case: he reminds us that Watergate wasn’t merely a “third-rate burglary” but a web of illegal actions from political espionage to financial corruption and diplomatic chicanery far more impactful than the legend suggests. While Graff seems a little too agnostic towards conspiracy theories about John Dean, the CIA etc. setting Nixon up, on the whole he does a fine job examining the different angles of the scandal, how it consumed not only Washington but American society and eroded trust in government forever.

#7. Nazis of Copley Square: The Forgotten Story of the Christian Front (2021, Charles R. Gallagher)

Charles Gallagher’s Nazis of Copley Square is one of many recent books fleshing out the American fascist groups of the ’30s and ’40s. In this case, Gallagher tackles the Christian Front, a far-right, mostly-Catholic militia group based in Boston and New York, inspired (though not directly led) by the infamous Father Charles Coughlin and directed by a combination of hoodlums and respectable Catholic citizens. Gallagher’s book delineates the political-religious beliefs of these groups, combining staunch Catholic anti-communism (stoked by the Spanish Civil War and suppression of the Catholic Church in Mexico), anti-Semitism (still official Church doctrine of the time) and “Mystical Body” theology, along with Anglophobia common among their mostly Irish members. These groups were no minor footnote, as other historians would have it; Gallagher spends time unwinding the January 1940 arrest of the Brooklyn “Sports Club” for stockpiling bombs and heavy weapons for a coup d’etat (an incident I’ve discussed here), also connecting Father Coughlin (via Smedley Butler) to an effort at raising a filibuster army to invade Mexico, then to “settle” Franklin Roosevelt. But the more proximate threat were to Jews, liberals and others in Boston and New York, where Christian Front thugs engaged in anti-Semitic violence before and even during World War II. Worse, their leaders (especially Francis Moran, their articular Boston organizer) often consorted with the German government, disseminating Nazi propaganda and battling American interventionists.

Much of the Christian Front’s apocalyptic rhetoric about “Judeo-Bolsheviks” and liberal subversion will ring a bell to modern readers. Similarly, one might find frustrating parallels in the seeming reluctance of authorities to prosecute, or even take seriously these groups: the Brooklyn plotters were acquitted while the press treated their hoarding of machine guns and pipe bombs as a light-hearted jape, while Moran could openly boast of his ties to the German government even during the war. But Gallagher doesn’t insist upon modern parallels: rather, he shows how Fronters were activated as much by militant Catholicism and fervid immigrant patriotism as much as admiration for Hitler or Franco (indeed, Moran often denounced Hitler’s violence, exasperating his Nazi contacts). And the book also spends time on those, like journalists Arthur Derounian (author of the classic expose Under Cover) and Frances Sweeney (a Boston investigator who, Gallagher argues, was also an asset of British intelligence) who exposed and fought the Front at great risk to themselves. Its a sobering tale of ideological warfare, demonstrating yet again that groups relegated to the political fringe and historical endnotes often lurk closer to the mainstream than we’d like to think.

#6. The Mismeasure of Man (1982, Stephen Jay Gould)

Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man examines the many ways that science has been used and abused by centuries of fools and ideologues. Gould notes that “science [has] often acted as the firm ally of existing institutions” and thus it’s little surprise that the worst excesses of pseudoscience (or scientism, an appeal to authority positing that any idea from any scientist must be treated with respect) serve to affirm existing prejudices and social hierarchies. Thus Louis Agassiz obsessed over the cranial measurements of different races, which “proved” the more evolved status of white men and the closeness of nonwhites to lower apes; or Samuel Cartwright could invent “drapetomania” as a pseudo-medical explanation for slaves fleeing their masters; how prostitute toes and criminal noses were meticulously measured to prove predisposition to vagrancy; or how IQ, a severely flawed measurement to begin with, has been consistently used to frame intelligence as an “innate” quality immune to environment or education. Some of these scientists merely used hopelessly flawed algorithms, while others, like intelligence scientist Cyril Burt or eugenicist Henry Goddard, flagrantly falsified data to conform to their prejudices. Fitting acts around a thesis, such scientism not only absolves the ruling classes of guilt for the “immutable” characteristics of those they exploit, they’re frequently used to justify racist laws from Jim Crow to anti-immigration statutes, or to bolster conservative cuts to education – why, after all, educate someone whose intelligence prevents them from learning to begin with? The revised edition excludes an extended debunking of Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, whose musings about racial differences in intelligence are little different than the 19th Century cranks Gould chronicles elsewhere. Race-based scientism is alive and well long after Gould’s death, as ongoing debates about face-recognition technology and artificial intelligence testify, with inescapable harmful effects on society.

#5. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (John W. Dower)

John W. Dower’s Embracing Defeat offers a compelling account of postwar Japan, from the dropping of the atomic bombs to the end of American occupation seven years later. During that time, Dower writes, the Japanese were forced to confront the shocking end of empire and the horrendous destruction wrought about them by Allied bombing. The response took many forms: while a handful of hardcore nationalists defended Japan’s record, most in the immediate aftermath felt a mixture of grief for its losses, denial over the country’s overseas atrocities and relief at its ending. Liberals and leftists viewed Japan’s defeat as an opportunity to destroy the monarchy and its militarist allies, while conservatives cut deals with the occupiers to retain what power they could. Elaborate war crimes trials targeted military and political leaders but left Emperor Hirohito (who disingenuously disclaimed responsibility for the war) unscathed, to avoid alienating the public as the Cold War approached. Ordinary Japanese dealt with the desolation from prolonged bombing and military deaths, battled starvation and disease and struggled to develop a fresh national identity in the face of foreign occupation. The Americans, led by the imperious Douglas MacArthur, ruled both with a heavy hand and racist assumptions about the “Oriental mind,” but also instituted liberal reforms in government, economics and gender reforms that helped Japan emerge as a functional, if flawed democracy. Dower shows that Japan, though momentarily humbled by their defeat, emerged from occupation with its people embracing free press and government, technological ingenuity, a repudiation of foreign adventurism and a vibrant, self-reflective culture – while, paradoxically, embracing a heavily corporatized economy and traces of nationalism that downplay the darker strands of its recent history. A stellar, thought-provoking book showing a country and people reinventing themselves after a world-historical trauma.

#4. American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis (2022, Adam Hochschild)

Adam Hochschild’s American Midnight revisits the painful period of 1917 through 1921, when the United States entered World War I then, having helped to win it, plunged into a maelstrom of political violence and state repression. Hochschild (King Leopold’s Ghost) turns his narrative gifts to Woodrow Wilson’s quixotic effort to “make the world safe for democracy” while working to crush it at home. Dissent was criminalized by the Espionage and Sedition Acts, with the government arresting socialists, labor leaders and other radicals under the guise of protecting America from German espionage. Vigilantes targeted German-Americans, some of whom were beaten, tarred-and-feathered or lynched; the American Protective League, a semi-official citizens’ detective agency, rounded up draft-dodging “slackers” and conscientious objectors; the Bureau of Investigation, under the ambitious detective William J. Flynn, consolidated its power. War’s end in November 1918 merely presaged a flowering of peacetime unrest: a flu pandemic, labor strikes, race riots, a wave of anarchist bombings and reprisals by super-patriots like the American Legion. It culminated in the Palmer Raids, where Wilson’s Attorney General unleashed the Federal government on thousands of victims – some radicals, many simply immigrants in the wrong place, who were arrested, beaten and many of them deported. The hysteria eventually burned itself out, but not without leaving deep scars on the American psyche.

These topics have often been discussed individually, like in Kenneth Ackerman’s Young J. Edgar (which depicts the Red Scare through the eyes of an ambitious young Bureau official), David Kennedy’s Over Here or Cameron McWhirter’s Red Summer. Hochschild ties these events into a cohesive narrative while adding unfamiliar contours. Familiar progressives Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman and Robert La Follette brush shoulders with less-known figures like socialist Kate Richards O’Hare, the first American prosecuted under the Espionage Act, and IWW leader Frank Little, lynched by a patriotic mob; reactionaries Ole Hanson, Seattle’s Red-baiting Mayor, and former Rough Rider Leonard Wood use the chaos to craft political careers. Black leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois bemoan race riots in East St. Louis and Chicago while encouraging the “New Negro” to assert their democratic rights in the face of prejudice and violence. Strikers are demonized as Bolsheviks, while a wave of wartime xenophobia leads to violence against immigrants and ultimately strict restrictions on their arrival. Hochschild unsparingly portrays Wilson as a pious hypocrite, with subordinates Flynn, A. Mitchell Palmer, George Creel (head of wartime propaganda) and postmaster Albert Burleson tightening the screws of repression. America emerged from this period fundamentally changed, its extant fault lines emphasized and a pattern for government repression in the name of “democracy” and anti-communism firmly established. A thoughtful, highly-readable narrative of a tumultuous time.

#3. American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (2004, Michael W. Kauffman)

Michael W. Kauffman’s American Brutus offers a probing, insightful reconstruction of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the conspirators involved. Kauffman’s book chides the conspiracy theories that have tied Lincoln’s to a plot by Radical Republicans, Confederate agents or even more shadowy figures, many of which revolve around the idea that the conspirators weren’t capable of managing such a wide-ranging coup themselves. Instead, John Wilkes Booth was a perfectly capable mastermind: a talented actor both professionally and in his private life, he easily manipulated a small cabal of malcontents and Southern sympathizers to do his bidding, using his own guile, connections and sense of drama to carry off America’s first presidential assassination. Kauffman ably reconstructs the assassination itself, along with the ancillary attack on William Seward by Lewis Payne, noting how much of it came down to a combination of luck and Booth’s own skillful grasp of the element of surprise; melodramatic touches like Booth’s leaping onto the stage were sure to disarm his audience, despite dozens of men, many of them carrying firearms, being present at the scene. He’s also quite good at sketching Booth’s experience as an actor, far more successful and respected than is sometimes supposed, his rivalry with brothers Edwin and Junius and his political evolution from conventional conservative to murderous fanatic. The book’s sketches of Booth’s co-conspirators (Payne, Herold, Atzerodt, the Surratts, etc.) are less thorough, though Kauffman shows that many of those tried were either railroaded or convicted on scant evidence by a government seeking revenge. Some readers might prefer James L. Swanson’s Manhunt for its crisp, reportorial recreation of the murder and its aftermath, but Kauffman’s is the better book for offering insights into how the conspiracy operated, the mindset of the men involved and how it further traumatized a war-torn country in ways too numerous to calculate.

#2. The Thirty Years War (1938, C.V. Wedgewood)

Few events in European history are as daunting as the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), a head-spinning spiral of religious and sectional conflict that ravaged the continent with a thoroughness not seen until the Second World War. C.V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years’ War does an admirable job making sense of this war for lay readers, even if some of the details remain obscure. What’s clear enough is that the war started from an arcane sectional dispute within the Holy Roman Empire, where the Catholic Elector of predominantly Protestant Bohemia was ousted in a religiously-motivated coup (the Defenestration of Prague) which triggered a German civil war that came to involve, more or less, the entire continent. Involving various German principalities, Hapsburg Austria and Spain, the Vatican and France, Sweden and other small nations (Poland, the Netherlands, Denmark) either sucked into or seeking to take advantage of the conflict, it took on outsize proportions through inertia, spite and stubbornness on the part of all belligerents. By the time the war ended in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia, few involved even remembered what was at stake, let alone what started the conflict; the main political impact was hastening the decline of the Hapsburgs and assuring French supremacy in western and central Europe for two centuries. For such cynical dividends did millions of Europeans, mostly Germans, suffer and die, leaving scars that (inevitably) ensured future conflicts.

Writing in the 1930s, Wedgwood drew on memories of the First World War which undoubtedly color her sour view of the conflict. She demonstrates that any higher motives triggering the war were quickly swallowed in a vortex of madness in which “the perverted cruelty of mankind…found horrible expression.” Armies ravaged the countryside, spreading rape, murder and plunder that left millions dead (some regions of Germany lost nearly half their population) and countless others traumatized and destitute. Peasants starved, endured plague and famine, resorting to banditry and cannibalism to stay alive, occasionally organizing full-scale revolts which incited further reprisals. Wedgwood provides sketches of the war’s major players, from Sweden’s Gustavus Adolphus (a brilliant ruler at home destined to spread suffering abroad) to France’s Cardinal Richelieu (a political mastermind who saw, in this baroque conflict, a chance to make France Europe’s supreme power) and the various German generals, princes and princesses who incited and guided the conflict. But the book is most compelling when chronicling the dread experiences of ordinary Europeans, from foot soldiers to farmers, who bore the cost of their masters’ ambition and avarice. A masterful narrative of one of humanity’s lowest, least-glorious points.

#1. G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century (2022, Beverly Gage)

I posted a full-length review of Beverly Gage’s excellent biography here. Perhaps too generous to its subject in places, it’s nonetheless commendably thorough and well-rounded portrait of the greatest villain of 20th Century America.

As this year comes to a close, what books did you read this year? What are you hoping to read in 2023?