The following are books that Wrongo hopes to finish by spring. They are all supposed to be good for you, like vitamins, or exercise. A few more may be added to the pile, but it is already an ambitious list to get through in the next quarter:
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari asks how Homo sapiens evolved from an unexceptional savannah-dwelling primate to become the dominant force on the planet.
The Sympathizer by Viet Trang Nguyen won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It describes a Viet Cong agent undercover with the Republic of Vietnam forces and the US military. He is bi-racial, with a Vietnamese mother and a French GI father, making him a “man of two minds”. He escapes after the Fall of Saigon, and lives in the Vietnamese refugee community in LA, while secretly reporting back to his communist superiors in Vietnam.
The First Congress by Fergus M. Bordewitch. America’s beginnings have been enjoying new popularity. The play “Hamilton” shows that better than any book. This interest has been sparked by a recognition that the American Revolution was a beginning, not an ending, of the story of our nation. And today, we need big ideas and role models more than ever.
The Populist Explosion by John Judis. Did an unstoppable wave of Populism give us Donald Trump? This is a 184 page book that may tell us.
The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky changed our assumptions about decision-making. Their work created the field of behavioral economics, for which Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize (Tversky had already died). The book is about their work, their incredibly close relationship, and how it went sideways.
The General vs. The President by HW Brands.
Wrongo just finished this highly readable book. In 1950, South Korea was invaded by the North, and our troops were nearly forced to abandon the peninsula.
Harry Truman was president. After WWII, America was not interested, or able to fight another war. We had demobilized our troops, and had limited numbers of planes, ships and equipment that were combat ready, but the thinking was that holding Korea was necessary to protect Japan from invasion by the Soviets and the Chinese.
General MacArthur was the greatest military hero of his time, and was in charge of America’s interests in Asia. In the Korean conflict, he had an early brilliant success, launching a counter-attack against the North Koreans at Inchon that led to the North Koreans being completely routed. MacArthur pursued them into North Korea, all the way to the Chinese border. China saw MacArthur on their border as an existential threat, and joined the conflict in huge numbers, pushing the allied forces back again into the south.
MacArthur had constantly lobbied (and actually took steps) to extend the war into China. He based that on advising Truman that the Chinese would never enter the war. He further insisted that the battle against communism should be fought in Asia, while Truman and the administration felt certain that the real trouble spot was Europe. We had already engaged Russia in the Berlin airlift in 1948. In fact, the CIA had warned that:
The Soviet Union may seize upon the present crisis [Korea] to precipitate general war with the United States.
MacArthur offered an unauthorized ceasefire to the North Koreans while threatening the alternative of nuclear war with China. He wanted to use Taiwan’s military to help defeat China’s troops in Korea, which would have left Taiwan unprotected, and would have re-started the war between the mainland and Taiwan that had just ended in 1949. He also wrote an inflammatory letter to a Republican congressman, contradicting his Commander in Chief’s strategy for Korea.
His actions caused his firing in April, 1951. Afterward, Truman came under withering attack from Republicans. MacArthur was hailed as a hero. He addressed a joint session of Congress, and had ticker tape parades all across the US. But, at Congressional hearings called to justify Truman’s strategy, the tide gradually turned against MacArthur.
The author does a fantastic job sourcing now de-classified portions of the hearings to demonstrate the danger in MacArthur’s ideas. Because of the hearings, all in Congress finally understood what America was facing globally, how ill-prepared we were at the time, and the folly of MacArthur’s plans.
MacArthur flirted with running for president, and Truman was weakened after his 1948 election. So MacArthur moved to kill the king. He called Truman an appeaser, someone who did not understand the global threat of communism. Truman did not run for reelection.
Eisenhower became president in 1952, having pledged to bring peace on the Korean peninsula.
Today, Truman is vindicated, and is considered a near-great president, while MacArthur is viewed as a brilliant military man who let politics ruin him.
Read the book!