Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World 1940-1941
In hindsight, history tends to take on an air of tectonic inevitability. What happened is always what had to happen. Nevertheless, at least at the level of political chronicle, one can focus in on moments when key decisions have been made that have influenced the course of history. Ian Kershaw looks at ten such moments from the Second World War in this book, analyzing to what extent they made a difference and to what extent they were true decisions at all, as opposed to the simple workings out of the logic of established ideologies. Given the militaristic fantasies of Germany, Japan and Italy – fantasies largely bred of envy at the position of Britain and the United States as imperial hegemons – conflict was inevitable. Such decisions as were made, no matter how strategically stupid or ill-advised (Mussolini’s invasion of Greece tops the list here) derived ineluctably from bedrock premises. Still, it is interesting to observe history’s actors playing their different parts, for good and ill, on such a massive stage.
Two things fascinate me about Lee Harvey Oswald. In the first place, how did this penniless, friendless, totally unaccomplished loser manage to lead such an eventful, not to say consequential, life? The second thing is how much we know about him: the result of the full power of the media (television, film, and publishing), the state (two separate commissions), and individual obsession (even before the rise of the Internet) being thrown at dissecting one person’s life down to the tiniest detail. Evidence even exists for what buses Oswald took on what trips, and what seats he sat in! You feel a kind of dizzy awe. Though not the last word on the subject (that word will never be written), Posner’s book does provide an excellent overview of what has become a needlessly complex bit of history.
Empire of Liberty
Gordon S. Wood
The United States these days doesn’t particularly like being described as an empire, though this has always been part of its DNA. “Empire of liberty” has a nicer ring to it (sort of like “soft power”), but this glosses over what was a conscious emulation of Rome. The rhetoric, as always in the early days of the Republic, could be deceiving; how intentionally is still an open question. In this excellent survey of the years 1789-1815, Gordon S. Wood revisits the gap that quickly developed between the ideals of the Revolutionary generation and the reality of nascent empire – describing how the country was transformed by a political experiment that, whatever its successes, led to results that were not at all what the Founders would have foretold, or even found desirable.