American History the Democratic Purpose

Heather Cox Richardson is an outstanding historian. I first became aware of her work on the Civil War and Reconstruction years ago. Her scholarship is rigorous, her prose clear and compelling. If you were teaching a course on American history in the latter part of the nineteenth century, you would assign her books – and students would read them. She is that good.

In the past decade plus, Richardson’s work has moved into the public sphere as she engaged with broader issues. Richardson has a daily substack newsletter with many followers, a podcast series, and is balancing her traditional scholarship with a nuanced look at contemporary affairs. She describes herself as a “Lincoln Republican.” What makes so much of her writing engaging is her rigor. Richardson finds ways to build themes from facts, not assertions, and she respects consistency and detail.

In 2023, Richardson wrote Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America. It is a big-picture book, a work of American history that contrasts two themes: authoritarianism and democracy, over the centuries. Richardson moves quickly and selectively in the book, framing events in support of her larger argument. It is not a work of discovery, but rather one of explication. Democracy Awakening is history done tidy, with little time for the complexities and contradictions that render her other works so fascinating. Accordingly, I found it to be an unusual book, one that has me wondering about what history can – and cannot – and what sticks in the public’s mind.

Democracy Awakening is strongest, and most effective, in reminding readers that authoritarian tendencies are deeply woven into American political life. Moreover, these impulses have been vibrant and essential to the creation of the United States. Much of our history is one of conflict, which demands cohesion. Richardson, accordingly, is quite good at identifying the persistence of this strand. We tend to miss these, often assuming that the contingencies that have made today possible were rife with meaning. Some are and some are not.

On the other hand, America’s equally ambitious democratic impulse is a national aspiration. This matters a great deal and it is where Richardson’s values align. She notes, as we all have to when looking at facts, that the march towards democratic rights for all has not taken place in a straight line. The journey has been complicated and remains so today. What that means for history is that it is difficult to align historical figures, movements and events, into clear and consistent categories. The strength and importance of history, in other words, comes from the close analysis of how, when and why we can make supported claims for where and how we track and make sense of those changes.

Richardson does this and does it well. In Democracy Awakening, though, she gives more of her attention to the theme than perhaps in some of her other books. That left this reader wanting more complexity and contradiction. For it is in wrestling with these problems that Richardson’s skill truly shines.

David Potash

Liberators & The Good Fight

There is absolutely nothing as good as a well-written history book to improve one’s perspective. Thinking that we might have it tough today? Worried about leadership and the direction of the country or the world? Look no further than a study of how the United States navigated through World War II to make one grateful and appreciative. Ten years ago A.J. Baime wrote The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm America at War. It remains relevant, informative, and a gripping read.

Baime is a journalist, author, and public speaker who knows how to spin a tale. His 2009 book, Go Like Hell, was a best-seller that later became the movie Ford v. Ferrari. Baime is able to frame big-picture themes while rendering them personal, giving readers a real sense of the people involved. That skill is clearly evident in Arsenal of Democracy. It is a book about an extraordinarily important issue – how American industrial might was essential to the Allies effort to win World War II – with close attention to the dramatic story of three generations in the Ford family. While it might not be the most comprehensive or inclusive way to tell the complex history of the rise of the American armament industry in the 1940s, it is nonetheless memorable and very entertaining.

Understanding the history requires an appreciation of overlapping and intersecting lines of power and influence. Internationally, the rise of Hitler’s Germany was not understood by many at the time to be an existential threat to democratic values. Baime sketches this deftly, using Charles Lindbergh as an example of a pacifist, apologist, and political naif. US domestic policy was of even greater importance. Baime goes quickly here, using President Roosevelt as the primary lens through which to explain planning and policy. There is little in Arsenal of Democracy on the New Deal, US industrial policy, or even domestic economics. What Baime does explain well is the economics of Ford Motors and its extraordinary rise from start up to one of the globe’s most profitable and important companies, all within a few decades. Ford is where Baime anchors this history.

Henry Ford, of course, is the dramatic focus. Brilliant, driven, and more than a little anti-Semitic and eccentric, Ford was one of the most significant and divisive figures of the early 1900s. Baime is a generous biographer, at times giving the elder Ford the benefit of the doubt. He characterizes Ford’s son, Edsel, in tragic terms, while Henry Ford II is not fully examined as a figure. The back and forth of these three men over the years is at the heart of The Arsenal of Democracy.

Garnering less attention in the book are the technical aspects of what Ford and other companies did during the war. The production of the Liberator, a heavy bomber, was very important. So, too, was the rise of the shipbuilding industry, the creation of weapons, and much more. Curious readers will have to look elsewhere to gain a broader comprehension of the many different ways that the American economy responded to the challenges of World War II. The period experienced extremely complicated labor history, massive racial strife, gender issues, and much more – all while the very existence of the democratic west was under immediate and dire threat. This history is one thread in a larger and vitally important history.

There is so very much to recommend in Arsenal of Democracy. Baime has made complicated history intelligible, has highlight the right issues, and reminded us all of the great debt we owe those that fought to preserve democracy in World War II. While far from the final word, it is nevertheless a much appreciated history that invites further investigation. What more could one want from history?

David Potash

Fighting Fascists on the Homefront

Rachel Maddow is a fine writer. Known for her award-winning show on MSNBC, Maddow has authored several books. Her latest, Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism, is a well-researched and engaging work of popular history. It is an important book, too, for it shines a light on a often-overlooked episode in America’s past. Prequel offers a look at many of the key fascist activists and spies in the U.S. leading up to World War II. Long on personalities, the book brings the story to life through peppery prose and close attention to individuals and conflict. It is no accident that the book opens with a “Cast of Characters.”

Drawing on a wealth of traditional scholarship that Maddow graciously acknowledges, Prequel is strongest when demonstrating how some American fascists gained influence and how they failed or were stopped. We know many of their names. The architect Philip Johnson was an earlier Nazi supporter, and while Louisiana Senator Huey Long was murdered before Hitler gained power, Maddow rightly attends to his anti-democratic tendencies. So, too, does the enormously popular radio host, Father Charles Coughlin, who made antisemitism a key component of his message.

Prequel hits its stride when Maddow writes about the anti-fascists. A courageous young Minnesota journalist, Arnold Eric Sevareid, investigated the “Silver Shirts,” a local fascist organization. Leon Lewis, a California lawyer, created an anti-fascist spy organization to gather information. He and his team did daring work yet government officials were reluctant to act. It is a recurring theme that Maddow underscores: consistent unwillingness to take the fascist threat seriously. Nonetheless, it was a significant concern, particularly as she recounts the theft of weapons and ammunition and accompanying training by the “Country Gentlemen” in New York State. Public statements supporting Nazi Germany, Nazi anti-Jewish pogroms, and explicit antisemitism were rampant. Yet few were censured and when the law was broken, convictions were equally rare.

Other lesser known heroes include FBI agent Leon Turrou, whose story infiltrating a Nazi spy ring was made into a popular movie. Justice Department prosecutor O. John Rogge sought cases against fascists and Nazi sympathizers. And most surprising, a direct mail advertiser, Henry Hoke, led a person campaign that uncovered the free franking of anti-Jewish mailers by federal elected officials sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Germany at the time was working to stoke divisions in American politics. The fight against the Nazis in the 1930s was not an organized coordinated effort. Instead, it was led by the heroics of people in different roles and places, people who took it upon themselves to defend democracy.

Maddox does not talk about current affairs in Prequel but the present is never too far from the book. It is for good reason, too. Democratic rights are not a given. Instead, they require ongoing protection and action. This was true in the years leading up to World War II, just as it is today.

David Potash

A Different Transatlantic History

We have multiple accounts of Europeans traveling the Americas in the 1400s and 1500s. Cross Atlantic journeys, though, were not unidirectional. Indigenous peoples of the Americas also went to Europe. Caroline Dodds Pennock, Britain’s foremost historian of the Aztecs, examines the histories of those who went to Europe in an extraordinarily interesting book: On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe. It is a provocative look at colonialism through a different lens. Many of the trips to Europe were forced, with indigenous people captured, coerced or enticed to Europe. However, indigenous people also demonstrated agency, diplomacy and a power in these exchanges. More than a corrective, Pennock’s study recasts early modern history in new light.

As stated here at:, History is not a simple account of what has transpired in the past. It is about making sense, crafting meaning, and telling stories that give us knowledge about what has happened, what is important, and what matters. The eurocentric “discovery” of the Americas has long been recognized as incomplete, racist, and politicized to an unacceptable degree. Real understanding demands broader and thoughtful inclusion. Pennock’s book, grounded in meticulous primary source research, gives the reader much more of that broad perspective. The author keeps us wondering – what was this like for the Totonacs, the Inuits, the Taino, and the many others who came to Europe? There were thousands and their voices have not been systematically heard.

The records are limited. Pennock, accordingly, focuses attention on the margins and the contexts, pulling meaning from scant sources. Most of the people she studies hailed from central America. She reminds us that translations were often done by the indigenous peoples, that their words are often hidden in colonial accounts. Indigenous people drew maps, wrote, argued in courts, and often had more agency and influence than the western writers and colonialists would ever admit.

The cross-cultural exchanges in On Savage Shores are especially fascinating. For example, Albrecht Durer, perhaps the most important artists of the Germanic renaissance, was captivated by the Aztec-Mexica artifacts displayed by King Charles V in Brussels in 1520. The world was significantly smaller and more known than we might recognize.

Some knowledge of European history and laws helps the reader untangle this complex history. For example, while slavery was common in the 1500s, Spanish law carefully assigned differing degrees of rights to different types of people. Cannibals, for example, could be treated much more harshly than other peoples defeated in war. Is it any wonder that so many early accounts of indigenous peoples stressed cannibalism? Slavery and other forms forced labor were extremely profitable. Women had few rights and were often victims. Pennock shares horrific accounts of sexual abuse and exploitation.

On Savage Shores is very good, very eye-opening history. The writing is clear, engaging, and accessible. It’s the kind of history that leaves one with a greater sense of understanding and also hungering for more information. Most importantly, Pennock’s book raises very important questions about who was and was not savage, questions that remain with me.

David Potash

War & Survival

When we think about war, we want to find heroes and villains, to craft lessons of morality. The violence and horrors of war demand that we come up with reasons and purpose. Without, it is all too terrible to contemplate. There can be no learning from random chaos. Nor is it worth our time to investigate or retell stories of empty violence. Consequently, we search for sense-making and meaning when talking about war, the reasons why and what it can teach us. Likewise, we hunt for lessons in the stories of individuals caught up in conflict. The wish is to make the conflict intelligible or understandable – even when what happens in war cannot be truly comprehended. There’s a basic human need to find some sense in the insensible.

Americans characterize World War II as a “good war.” Pledged to democracy, the US was the victim of a surprise attack by the Japanese and few villains have ever matched the evil of Nazi Germany. From the war’s onset, America claimed the moral high ground. In many ways it’s an accurate perspective. Studs Terkel cemented this interpretation in his fascinating and best-selling oral history, The Good War. It makes me wince when I hear “the good war” dropped in conversation. World War II was a global conflict and America was far from the only decisive participant. Many of the histories of the war are not about good, bad or morals. They are about awful circumstances and people trying to stay alive. There is not much good in that.

A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City is a diary of survival. Written by a female German journalist as the Soviet army took over the city in 1945, it is a harrowing and extraordinary first-person account, pragmatic and clear-eyed in its detail. She tells us about day-to-day struggles for food, water and shelter, about death and dying, and about rape. The narrator is raped repeatedly by Soviet solders, as were thousands upon thousands of German women. Historians have not determined how many Germans were raped at the end of World War II by Allied forces, but the numbers are astronomical. Estimates range into the millions. Sexual atrocities at the end of war were pervasive, under-reported and for decades, ignored. As more scholars are realizing, sexual violence is a constant part of warfare. Rape in wartime is war by another means.

The author of A Woman in Berlin published her diary as a book anonymously in the 1950s. It was widely read in multiple languages and ignored in Germany. The author, who died in 2001, refused to have it republished in her lifetime. An updated translation into English came out in 2005, forcing a re-reckoning of the book and ready assumptions about the war’s conclusion. The arrival of peace in Europe was far from peaceful The book upends conventions of who is a victim, who is a criminal, and how and what sort of choices are possible in wartime.

At end of the war, Berlin was mostly inhabited by women, children and the aged. These people bore the brunt of the invasion, just as they had suffered through much in the past few years. We do not immediately think of German citizens as victims. They were, though, and none of the survivors in A Woman in Berlin had agency when it came to German politics or military strategy. They, like most people most of the time, simply looked to the basic needs and wants of everyday life. The immediacy of the author’s experience captures this and more, from the Soviet’s fascination with collecting wrist watches to what it felt like to stay in a bomb shelter during a raid. Our author is brutally honest, with herself and in her conversations with others. Knowing that rape is unavoidable, she seeks out an officer to protect her and to limit the possibility of random violence and rape. It was a decision driven by necessity. She wonders if she can call that a relationship in those circumstances. It was consensual to avoid rape.

A Woman in Berlin is as accurate a story of World War II as any traditional tale of heroism in battle or derring-do in resistance. The author’s prose rings true. Her voice, her language, her descriptions have tremendous integrity. I have a sense that the author’s disciplined writing, her commitment to her journalism, gave her a sense of self in a time of great pain, terrible choices and uncertainty. No one knew what the next day might hold.

The author notes the emptiness of Nazi male posturing and the collective disappointment of German women. It’s an important reminder when we place people on pedestals or talk about “good” wars. Certain conditions may make war necessary. Study it, live through it, or think about it, though, and there’s but one conclusion: do not celebrate war. William Tecumseh Sherman, a US Civil War general, summed it up. “Some of you young men think that war is all glamour and glory, but let me tell you, boys, it is all hell.”

David Potash

Theodore Roosevelt and an Historian’s Obsessions

Tell someone you want to be a history teacher and you’re likely to get an old joke: if you’ve studied it once, you don’t need to study it again. History, after all, doesn’t change.

If only.

When Trumpets CallWhen you really dig into a historical subject, start to obsess about it, write about it and argue it, you see it in new ways. You don’t tire of it and instead, re-interpretation and re-re-reinterpretation becomes natural. Interest leads to curiosity, which in turn catalyzes ever more curiosity. It’s a strange feeling and a good one, too – humbling.

I had that sensation when doing graduate research on the early part of the twentieth century in American politics. It emerged slowly, over years of work. Reading primary sources complemented secondary sources, which in turn gave me insight into different primary sources. I read and read and read, to the point when I was working on my dissertation that I dreamed of living in the early 1900s. Reading newspaper from the period again and again will do that. Even though today I do not teach or write history, I find myself pulled to that period out of interest and familiarity. It has become part of me.

Recently I finished When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House – another biography of Theodore Roosevelt. There are many biographies of the man. The broad outlines of Roosevelt’s life are well-known, as is his over the top personality, and his emergence as a popular culture icon. It’s no accident that Robin Williams played a touching TR in the Night at the Museum movies.

Roosevelt is a fascinating figure to study and there is much to admire in his early years. His post-presidency rhetoric, though, and his strident militarism can make for a difficult subject. O’Toole – a writer, not a professional historian – renders him with patience and deep appreciation. Her research was with direct sources, so her reading of Roosevelt’s correspondence and those of his colleagues helps to flesh out the man’s complexities. She is a skilled author. O’Toole is able to add drama and impact to the history.

That said, O’Toole does not add anything really new to the study of the man. This is no closely argued academic tome. She comes to the subject with no broad argument, no ax to grind, and no key thesis to prove. She writes for understanding and to sell books. In these goals, she succeeds.

What is missing from the book is the sort of deep appreciation and understanding of a trained historian. She writes history without an historian’s passion. And somehow I doubt that she dreams about what it was like in the summer of 1912, in Chicago, as the Republican Party tore itself apart trying to find a candidate and consensus. As I said, I’m a little bit obsessed.

David Potash

To Get an International Job Done

Amid partisan wrangling, international conflict, and the quantification of risk, is it possible today to do something grand on the international scale? A war, perhaps, but what about project with global implications? And can anything be done in the Middle East? To answer just that question I recently read Zachary Karabell’s Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal.

Karabell is a twenty-first century Renaissance man. He is an economist and money manager, has overseen mutual funds, and has his own firm looking at economic and political trends. He is also a Harvard educated historian with extensive knowledge of global economic development and the author of several books. Most importantly, Karabell has the background, training and perspective to explain one of the most daunting construction projects of the nineteenth century: the building of the Suez Canal.

The waterway, which connects the Mediterranean and Red Seas, was a massive engineering feat when first completed in 1869. It did not, though, require all that much by way of innovation or cutting edge technology. What made the building of the Suez Canal such an extraordinary undertaking was the politics and the people involved. This is the focus on Karabell’s thoughtfully written study.

Many since the time of the Pharaohs recognized the value of connecting the two seas through canals. Ptolemy led one such project. The earlier efforts silted up, however, and it was not until Napoleon invaded Egypt that the idea gained traction. Numerous studies were undertaking, but none had a clear champion the vision, perseverance, connections and will to bring the idea forward. Until Ferdinand de Lesseps, a well-connected diplomat whose career derailed due to French politics in 1849, took up the cause.

Karabell patiently explains the conditions and leadership of Egypt at the time. He makes clear that while de Lesseps may take the hero’s role in the tale, Egypt’s Khedive, Sa’id Pasha, was essential in creating the political environment for the Canal’s success.  De Lesseps knew Sa’id Pasha as young man, and as Karabell regularly notes, de Lesseps multinational connections were invaluable. Not only did Egypt have to approve the Canal and provide the labor to dig the waterway, de Lesseps sought international funding of the company, as well as the support of France, England, the Ottoman Empire, and other European leaders.

Through incessant effort and skillful political management, de Lesseps increasingly engaged French government in the project. He parlayed cultural fascination with things Egyptian into support. Karabell has a firm understanding of French culture in the 1800s and regularly connects the colonial exoticism of Egypt with the domestic politics of France. The creation of the Canal basically came about through a France – Egypt partnership under de Lesseps driving vision. Opposed to the project, England may have benefited the most from the increased opportunities for world trade and maritime power.

Ultimately, as Karabell makes evident, the Suez Canal provided significant benefit at significant cost. One senses the author’s identification – with the key players in the story of the Suez Canal – and also with his admiration for the success of the project. It truly took an international vision with international expertise. And it would be an equally daunting task today.

Popular and Unpopular History

Professional historians tend to be snobs about popular history. While a well-reviewed and discussed book is a boon, historians who consistently sell books that might make it to the non-academic press carry a taint of suspicion. Only a few can manage the jump to the for-profit presses, and when they do they are rarely read in graduate seminars or referenced in conferences. And the very unusual historian who can crank out best sellers is usually cast off the island to swim in different waters.

Take Steven Ambrose, for example, whose ethical lapses validated the exclusiveness of the mandarins. With some early strong biographies on Eisenhower and Nixon, he parlayed an extraordinarily effective writing style into an industry. The scuttlebutt was that he was too prolific and cut corners. Undeterred, Ambrose cranked out a wide range of books on World War II, aviation, Lewis and Clark, and much more. He was executive producer of HBO’s A Band of Brothers. And with the success came scrutiny and the realization that Ambrose serially lifted prose from others and inserted it into his own. The man was, in fact, a fibber – something handy in storytelling but a liability in the historian’s pursuit of the truth.

But being popular does not mean that one has to lie, cheat or steal. A select number of historians are able to serve Cleo faithfully and expand the knowledge of multiple readers. Middlebrow is what the genre used to be called and it’s essential for an educated society. And when historians do not reach out and make their topics appetizing, journalists and writers do it for them.

From that larger context, a few thoughts about Evan Thomas‘s The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire, 1898. It is a well-written a timely book telling the “story” of America’s entry into the Spanish-American War in 1898 through the respective biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and William Randolph Hearst. All three men’s trajectories are brought together in an almost tragic-comedic recounting of the battles in Cuba. Weighing heavily on the narrative and the structure are Iraq and contemporary international politics; the connections are almost inescapable.

For readers who know little of the Spanish-American War, who have forgotten the Maine, the book is a helpful but narrow introduction. For those that know of the conflict and have dipped into the popular history of Roosevelt, the book provides a slightly cynical take and a useful corrective. Above all, it is an entertaining read. But when it comes to historical understanding, the book falls short.

Popular history often gains readership through reducing the complex to the simple, providing clear reasons for causality. Thomas does it in the War Lovers, capturing the connections between personal ambition and national expansion, or nationalism, in the key protagonists. It is a good argument and an important factor. Missing, though, is an awareness of the larger world and the forces of imperialism shaping the globe. Economic concerns are absent and the push and pull of partisan politics is downplayed. The foolishness of the Spanish receives little attention. In fact, reducing complicated international conflicts to comparative biography can lead one down a path of simply getting history wrong. One of the fascinating things about the broad sweep of history is that it is always – always – greater than the reach of any one individual.

Thomas does not get it wrong. His reading of Lodge is good and his characterizations of Hearst and Roosevelt, two extremely interesting figures, is not far off. Thomas provides a solid account. A good historian, though, if so inclined could provided a richer, more interesting account.