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The Rise and Fall of a National Strategy: The UK and The European Community: Volume 1: v. 1 (Cabinet Office Peacetime)
The Rise and Fall of a National Strategy: The UK and The European Community: Volume 1: v. 1 (Cabinet Office Peacetime)
by Alan S. Milward
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £110.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars To join or not to join?, 8 Jun. 2013
There are few issues in postwar British politics that have proven as contentious and as vexing as that of Britain's relationship with the rest of Europe. For decades Britain has wrestled with the question of its place within an increasingly integrated continent, with the very subject of Britain's membership in the European Union regarded by many as still open for debate. Yet for others the problem was not that Britain joined Europe's unification project but that it did not join it soon enough, having passed on what in retrospect seems to have been the priceless opportunity to become a founding member of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957. As Alan Milward demonstrates in this book, however, such arguments ignore both the problems and opportunities that faced Britain after the Second World War, ones that he sees as providing a far more complicated set of options for British policymakers than might be seen in retrospect.

Milward begins by looking at the European issues facing Britain after the end of the war with Nazi Germany. Foremost among them was the growing threat of the Soviet Union, and the consequent need (far from guaranteed) to keep the United States engaged with European defense. The Soviet challenge served as an impetus for postwar reconstruction, an effort that helped stimulate efforts towards a combined economic effort, Though Britain encouraged such efforts, her leaders eschewed any sort of long-term commitment, seeing the Empire and the Commonwealth as far more important to the British economy that a devastated and divided Europe- an understandable view given the statistics Milward provides for British trade during that period. Instead, Britain sought to maintain a role at the center of a sort of Venn diagram between the United States, the Commonwealth, and Europe, sharing a role with each yet not being drawn into any sort of isolating commitment with any one of them. It was this attitude which led Britain to opt out of the sort of restrictive relationships entailed in the emerging Coal and Steel Community, as well as the subsequent EEC. That the EEC's emergence coincided with both the European economic boom and growing international competition for Commonwealth markets fueled almost instantaneous second thoughts after 1957, but by the time Britain sought entry into the EEC it faced the implacable opposition of Charles de Gaulle, who vetoed Britain's first attempt at entry in January 1963.

All of this Milward describes in a narrative characterized by erudition, insight and wit. His command of the sources is impressive, and he is generous enough to direct readers in his footnotes to books offering opposing viewpoints on the more contentious issues. Together it makes his book essential reading not just for those interested in Britain's relationship with the developing institutions of united Europe, but anyone wanting to learn about this pivotal point in defining Britain's postwar relationship with the world.


Garfield
Garfield
by Allan Peskin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £36.95

5.0 out of 5 stars A first-rate presidential biography, 3 Jun. 2013
This review is from: Garfield (Hardcover)
Earlier this year the 'Washington Post' published a Presidents' Day leader that sought to make the case for James Abram Garfield as possibly 'the best president we never had, or hardly had.' Their claims for Garfield as 'a president of conviction and conscience' were based on Garfield's inaugural address, as well as his appointment of a few African Americans to positions within his administration. What their claims were most assuredly not based on, though, was a reading of Allan Peskin's biography of Garfield, which offers a thorough understanding of the man based on a comprehensive examination of his life and career.

Born in Ohio, Garfield attained success almost in spite of himself. Drawn to the sea, a period of illness cut short an early career as a canal driver, as he was drawn to more academic pursuits. A member of the Disciples of Christ, he made the most of the educational opportunities they provided, returning after college to teach at the school he attended as a youth. A gifted public speaker, Garfield began a career in politics that was cut short by his decision to serve in the Union Army, where he rose to the rank of major general. While still serving he won election to Congress, where he eventually emerged as the leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives. Peskin sees Garfield as a capable figure, yet one whose ambition was tempered by a degree of fatalism about the outcome. Thus while serving as John Sherman's floor lieutenant at the 1880 Republican convention, he did nothing to discourage consideration of him as a 'dark-horse' candidate. A narrow election won him the presidency, and he had only just resolved the party struggle over patronage when he was shot by a deranged assassin and suffered a slow descent towards death.

Peskin's book is easily the best biography of Garfield, thanks to its combination of judicious analysis and enjoyable writing. He is blunt in his assessment of Garfield, going past the superficial explanations to provide a convincing cataloging of his strengths and weaknesses. The result is an excellent biography, one of the best ever written about a president and one that likely will stand the test of time for decades to follow.


The Children of Henry VIII
The Children of Henry VIII
by John Guy
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.48

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The question of the succession, 1 Jun. 2013
Though ostensibly about Henry VIII's offspring, John Guy's new book is really about the succession question facing the king and his heirs. As that question was inextricably tied to his progeny, Guy has looked at Henry's marriages and the upbringing of his children - both legitimate and illegitimate - to understand their successive efforts to secure the throne and turn their very different visions of the kingdom they ruled into reality.

This Guy describes by the shifts in fortune that Henry's children experienced over time. Upon her birth, his first child, Mary, was showered with gifts and given an entourage befitting her status. Yet even at an early age that status was in question, as her illegitimate half-brother, Henry Fitzroy (born three years after Mary) posed a threat simply by virtue of his sex. Catherine's inability to father a son of her own (likely due, as Guy argues, to Henry's probably Kell-positive status) made Fitzroy a potential successor; acknowledged by his father, the boy was given a royal education and paraded around as proof that the king could father a son. Anne Boleyn's emergence and the divorce battle jeopardized both of their statuses, and the new queen exploited every possibility to diminish their status. Boleyn's own failure to produce a son, however, contributed to her downfall, with her daughter Elizabeth soon on the same roller coaster of status. Edward's birth finally gave Henry the son he wanted, yet his young age meant that Mary and Elizabeth remained possible successors. After succeeding Mary and Edward, Elizabeth passed on marriage, thus avoiding much of the family turmoil she experienced growing up, though at the ultimate cost of the demise of the Tudor line.

Guy recounts all of this in a book that is both perceptive and clearly written. Drawing upon both the contemporary documents (from which he makes some impressive observations not just in terms of their content but their form as well) and the rich historical literature of the Tudors, he provides a fluent and enjoyably readable account of what was perhaps the dominant political issue in sixteenth century politics. It demonstrates why John Guy stands as one of the leading Tudor historians working today, one whose books everyone with an interest in Tudor England should read for the insights they contain.


The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796
The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796
by Christopher Duggan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.59

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Italy the nation?, 14 Mar. 2013
Christopher Duggan's book is not so much a history of modern Italy as it is an account of the evolution of Italy as a nation. This focus allows him to address a perennial problem that Italy has faced since its coalescence in 1861, which is the absence of a strong unifying identity. At first glance, this may seem curious, given the long and storied history of the Italian peninsula. Yet from the start Duggan shows that the centuries of division into competing realms cultivated a series of regional identities, irrespective of any common past or language.

This was the challenge that Duggan sees facing Italian nationalists at the start of the nineteenth century. While Napoleon Bonaparte's conquest fueled hopes among some of their number that unification would follow, his constant redrawing of the political map of Italy demonstrated that he had little interest in creating a unitary nation of Italians. In the aftermath of his defeat, pluralism was reestablished at the Congress of Vienna, with the peninsula now governed by several rulers, many of whom were connected to the Austrians. Duggan makes it clear that the King of Sardinia was the only ruler in a position to bring about unification, yet it was a unification that few wanted beyond the fervent Italian nationalists and the Piedmont leadership which stood to benefit from spearheading the political consolidation of the peninsula.

Yet unification brought new challenges which the nationalists were unable to address. The vision of a united, democratic Italy often seemed a contradiction, as many nationalists feared that a representative political process would create factions and thus run counter to the vision of a single nation. Thus Italy found itself wrestling with its existence from the start, in a struggle marked by corrupt politics, regional prejudices, and the hostility of the Catholic Church. By featuring this struggle, Duggan makes the appeal of the Fascists clear, as their calls for monolithic unity offered a solution to this problem. As leader of the Fascists Benito Mussolini also hoped to deliver another missing equation of unity - military victories that demonstrated Italian strength and rallied the populace. Yet Mussolini's efforts to this end only resulted in the scourge of war and the humiliation of conquest. Moreover, whatever success enjoyed by the Fascists seemed superficial, as many of the underlying problems continued to plague Italy right down to the present day.

Duggan's book is one that would cause anyone who loves Italy to weep for it. It is a powerful and insightful survey of the struggles that Italy has faced over the past few centuries, one that will leave many readers skeptical about Italy's future prospects. Indeed, Duggan makes an excellent case that Italian unification was premature, and it is on that prematurity that so many of Italy's problems rest. As pessimistic as such a diagnosis is, it helps readers to both better understand Italy's past as well as some of the underlying problems it faces going forward. It is for this reason as well as many others that this is a book that should be read by anyone interested in Italian history or in the troubled nation of Italy today.


The Truth Machine: A Social History of the Lie Detector (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology)
The Truth Machine: A Social History of the Lie Detector (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology)
by Geoffrey C. Bunn
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.00

3.0 out of 5 stars Assaying the truth, 24 Feb. 2013
This is a book that is both more and less than what its subtitle claims to offer. In setting out to write 'a social history of the lie detector,' Geoffrey Bunn begins not with the invention of the machine itself, but with the background to its development, specifically the changing attitudes towards criminals and the notion of truth. The emergence of criminal anthropology in the 19th century was based on the assumption of a criminal 'class,' one distinguishable by their physical traits that could be measured by new instruments. In one of his many interesting points, Bunn notes that some of these devices ultimately served as components of the lie detector, which was a far simple machine than some might otherwise think.

Yet the spur for the development of the lie detector came not from science but from fiction. As criminal anthropology and the concept of a criminal class came under assault, a need emerged to discern truth from fiction. Writers of detective stories were among the first to grasp this, and many of their tales featured devices that distinguished truth-telling from lies. By the 1920s, the invention of the lie detector (the contested claims for which Bunn describes in one of the better chapters) had seized the public imagination, with claims that the invention would soon render the criminal justice system obsolete among the more modest predictions of the device's apparently limitless future.

Bunn abruptly ends the book here, with a final chapter musing on some of the epistemological issues arising from the lie detector. It encapsulates perfectly both the strengths and weaknesses of the book, making some interesting connections and offering some intriguing ideas, but ultimately failing to deliver on the promise of the book's title. What Bunn has produced is less a history of the role of the lie detector in history than a description of its origins and the contemporary reaction to its invention. It's an informative and often thought-provoking assessment about the Western world's changing ideas about criminality and the quest for truth, but it doesn't achieve its advertised goal. Hopefully someone will write a more complete social history of the lie detector someday, for if nothing else Bunn has demonstrated just how fascinating such a work would be to read.


Coolidge
Coolidge
by Amity Shlaes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £23.92

13 of 20 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A disappointingly hollow book, 17 Feb. 2013
This review is from: Coolidge (Hardcover)
Few presidents have fallen as far as Calvin Coolidge. A popular president during his time in the White House, his standing plummeted with the onset of the Depression and the retroactive discrediting of his administration's policies that were associated with it. Yet in recent years a number of conservative writers have challenged this view, offering a contrasting interpretation of Coolidge as a presidential paragon. In this respect Amity Shlaes is merely the latest in a long line of writers stretching from Thomas B. Silver to Robert Sobel who seek to rehabilitate Coolidge's historical reputation so as to make him a respectable example of presidential leadership for our own times.

Yet it seems that the only way that Shlaes can achieve this goal is by ignoring the many criticisms directed against Coolidge's presidency. Rather than acknowledging any role that his low-tax, minimalist-regulation agenda might have played in fueling the speculative mania that led to stock market crash of 1929 or the depression that followed, she prefers to depict his administration as having achieved a perfect economic environment that was humming along smoothly when the keys were handed over to his successor. Throwing Herbert Hoover under the bus by blaming him for the collapse that followed is not only grossly unfair, it defies the evidence of an economy in the 1920s that was nowhere near as healthy as Shlaes would like to admit. Moreover, it undermines her goal, as rather than give Coolidge's achievements a full reexamination that would address the criticisms she does little more than offer a selective portrait that only serves to reaffirm the beliefs of the like-minded.

This is unfortunate considering the effort she put into her work. For despite Shlaes's considerable research in the papers of Coolidge and his contemporaries, her overall result adds little to the case made in previous efforts to redeem Coolidge and his presidency. Because of this, readers seeking to learn more about Coolidge would be better served by turning to Sobel's superior Coolidge or David Greenberg's shorter Calvin Coolidge for an understanding of our 30th president's life and career rather than Shlaes's hefty tome - which, for all its size, proves in the end to be disappointingly hollow.


Rumania 1866-1947 (Oxford History of Modern Europe)
Rumania 1866-1947 (Oxford History of Modern Europe)
by Keith Hitchins
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £47.69

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The development of the Romanian nation, 30 Jan. 2013
When it comes to Romanian history, there is no greater English-language expert than Keith Hitchins. Over the past several decades he has established his mastery of the subject with works exploring the emergence of modern Romania and the development of Romanian nationalism in the 18th and 19th centuries. As such, he was a natural choice as the author of the volume on Romania for the Oxford History of Modern Europe, and he does not disappoint, providing a masterful account of the nation from its gradual independence in the mid-19th century to the Soviet-directed takeover by the Communist Party after World War II.

While Hitchins's narrative encompasses the country's social and economic development, politics is his main focus, particularly in his concentration on the evolution of Romanian nationalism and on the debates over what sort of nation Romania should become. This came at an interesting time in European history, with nationalism maturing as a political concept on a continent still consisting of multinational empires. As a nationality that gained a country during this period, Romanians faced choices over how their country should develop, with Romanian intellectuals and politicians arguing between the often-contrasting demands of industrialization and the maintenance of the traditional agricultural economy as a cornerstone of Romanian identity. Often the grand designs proposed by leaders were frustrated by the limited resources available, yet Romania enjoyed considerable success politically, expanding as a result of fortuitous decisions during the European conflicts of the period before being cornered into an association with Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, one that would serve as an excuse for Soviet domination in the aftermath of the war.

Lucidly written and backed by a sure command of the historical literature, Hitchins's book is essential reading for anyone seeking to learn about the history of this underappreciated nation. Though some readers might find his extensive coverage of Romanian nationalism tedious, it offers a fascinating glimpse of a newly founded nation coming to terms with its course in the modern era. As such it is of interest not just to students of Romanian history but to anyone seeking to learn about the development of nationalism in modern Europe, particularly outside of the traditional western European-centric focus in so many other accounts of this topic. Together these factors make it a worthy addition to the Oxford History of Modern Europe series, one unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon as a history of its subject.


John F. Kennedy (American Presidents Series)
John F. Kennedy (American Presidents Series)
by Alan Brinkley
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A perceptive account of Kennedy's life and career, 14 Dec. 2012
For the past decade, 'The American Presidents' series has churned out a series of biographies of America's nation's leaders written by a diverse range of authors, from historians who draw upon their expertise to inform their interpretation of their subject, to more eclectic writers who inform their efforts with a sometimes refreshingly new perspective. Alan Brinkley fits squarely into the first category: a longtime scholar of 20th century America, he brings the skills and knowledge gained a lifetime of study to this sprightly book on John F. Kennedy. His perspective is critical but not unfavorable; while acknowledging Kennedy's many gifts, he describes how they served to sustain his popularity through the numerous setbacks he suffered as president. In this respect, the power of his image rested less on his actual accomplishments, but on what he represented, both as a leader and the 'transformative moment' during which he served as president.

Such analysis explains Kennedy's enduring hold on our historical imagination and points to the value of the book as a study of his life. While hardly the first short biography of Kennedy, Brinkley's book surpasses previous works of its type such as John F.Kennedy and a New Generation and Kennedy (Profiles In Power) thanks to its author's analysis and incorporation of recent revelations about Kennedy's poor health. For anyone seeking an perceptive and readable introduction to the life and career of America's 35th president, this is the book to read.


Disraeli
Disraeli
by Robert Blake Blake
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars A classic of British political biography, 19 Oct. 2012
This review is from: Disraeli (Hardcover)
Among British prime ministers, few were as memorable as Benjamin Disraeli. The son of a prominent literary scholar, he enjoyed success as a novelist before turning to a career in politics, Though elected to the House of Commons at a relatively late age, the split in the Conservative Party over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 (a split resulting in part from Disraeli's active campaigning against the measure) catapulted him to the front rank of the party. After several brief periods in office during the 1850s and 1860s, he became the leader of the party in 1868 and served twice as prime minister, where he spearheaded the acquisition of the Suez Canal and won admiration for his role at the Congress of Berlin in 1878.

Disraeli has not wanted for biographers, yet Robert Blake's work has long been the standard by which they were judged. A renowned historian, his book offers an engaging and insightful look at Disraeli and his times. He presents Disraeli as a Romantic figure whose career was guided by his idolization of the monarchy and an aristocratic order that had long shunned him. While such views may have been more fitting for the political world of the 18th century rather than that of the 19th, his belief in the continuing relevance of these institutions in an increasingly democratic age eventually won the social parvenu the gratitude of the nobility and the devotion of his queen, who mourned his passing when he died in 1881.

In reading Blake's book, it is easy to understand why it endures as a study of Disraeli's life and career. Though some of his interpretations have been superseded by subsequent work, Blake's success in conveying the flamboyance and political ability of his subject makes this a book a rewarding and enjoyable read today for anyone seeking to learn about this unique and fascinating figure. Nearly a half century after its publication, this remains the best single book on Disraeli and continues to serve as an excellent study of the politics of Victorian Britain, one that is essential reading for anyone interested in its subject.


Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
by John Milton, Jr. Cooper
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent biography of America's 28th president, 27 Sept. 2012
Woodrow Wilson ranks among the most controversial presidents in American history. Elected at the peak of the Progressive movement in the United States, he secured passage of a number of new measures that fundamentally transformed the government's relationship with the economy, yet presided over the introduction of segregation at the federal level. While promising a new approach to foreign policy governed by morality rather than crass personal interest, he initiated Latin American military interventions little different than those pursued by his predecessors. And while he led his nation into a war to make the world safe for democracy, the resulting peace only laid the groundwork for another, even more devastating conflict just two decades later.

For these reasons, Wilson has not wanted for historical study, yet a good biography has long proved elusive. John Morton Blum's Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Morality and Kendrick Clements's Woodrow Wilson: World Statesman are both valuable short introductions to Wilson's life, but a more detailed examination has been lacking until now. John Milton Cooper has meet the need for such a work with this book. A scholar who has spent his career studying Wilson and the Progressive era, he brings the benefits of his extensive knowledge to bear in this study. While not uncritical, he is generally sympathetic towards Wilson, and works to dispel the image of the stern moralist that persists in the popular imagination. His Wilson is at his core an educator, a president who was most successful when he explained his proposals and intentions to the public. Such efforts helped win for Wilson a number of impressive legislative and other policy achievements, while his failure to do so (such as in the fight over the League of Nations) often emerges as a major factor in his greatest failures.

Such an approach can seem forgiving, and at times the author can come across more like an advocate for the defense than a scholar weighing the evidence. Yet this is a minor complaint when weighed against the scope of Cooper's achievement here. Cogently written and supported by a wealth of material, this excellent book enriches its readers' understanding of Wilson as a person and a president, and will likely be the standard by which future biographies of America's 28th president are judged for decades to come.


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