Since I began writing Mal Warwick on Books in 2010, I’ve read and reviewed more than 200 books in the categories of history, current affairs, and biography. Most of them cast light on the history of the United States. Here, I’ve listed my 19 top picks for understanding American history. They’re arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each title and author is followed by the name and link for its review. Below this list you’ll find 53 others you may also find illuminating.
Included among the 72 titles are books by such prominent authors as Robert A. Caro, T. J. Stiles, Erik Larson, Adam Hochschild, Paul Kennedy, and Stephen Kinzer.
As you’ll see, two of the 19 books in this list are novels. All the rest are nonfiction, except where otherwise noted in the lists of runners-up that follow.
The top 19
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander — The New Jim Crow: reexamining mass incarceration in America
Prof. Alexander explains how the country’s criminal justice system has been warped to the point of non-recognition by a series of Presidential actions, Congressional legislation, and Supreme Court decisions. Read the full review.
Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen — Conspiracy theories, fake news, and other delusions in American history
If you think only Donald Trump, Fox News, anonymous online pundits, and Russian hackers have a monopoly on “fake news,” guess again. Mainstream media have indulged as well. Read the full review.
The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass — Nixon, Kissinger, and the genocide history has ignored
In 1971, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger colluded in the murder of hundreds of thousands of people in what today is Bangladesh. Read the full review.
The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War by James Bradley — Teddy Roosevelt and the dark side of American foreign policy
Racist attitudes were prevalent and unchallenged in the US at the turn of the 20th Century and achieved full expression in Teddy Roosevelt’s aggressive foreign policy. Read the full review.
The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone — The woman codebreaker who caught gangsters and Nazi spies
Elizebeth [sic] Friedman played a seminal role in developing America’s codebreaking capacity over the course of two world wars, inventing new techniques that transformed the science of cryptology. Read the full review.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann — The case that helped put the FBI on the map
Collusion between government officials and local white gentry led to dozens of murders among the Osage Nation, “the wealthiest people per capita in the world” in the early 1920s, as their neighbors vied to gain control of their oil wealth. Read the full review.
The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings — A revisionist history of intelligence in World War II
This is revisionist history at its best. Anyone who seeks to understand how World War II was really waged should read this book without delay. Read the full review.
The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War by Stephen Kinzer — They shaped US foreign policy for decades to come
Eisenhower’s Secretary of State and the long-time CIA director set the US on a path of undermining foreign governments in the name of anti-Communism. Read the full review.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson — Why the U.S. failed to speak out against the rise of Hitlers Germany
Anti-Semitism in the State Department and indifference in the White House made it impossible for the US Ambassador in Berlin to speak out against Adolf Hitler. Read the full review.
Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, by Thomas Mallon — Ronald Reagan deconstructed in a new Thomas Mallon novel
Ronald Reagan emerges as an enigmatic figure, alternately muddle-headed and brilliantly articulate. Nancy Reagan “didn’t know who he was, and she never had.” Read the full review.
Watergate by Thomas Mallon — Watergate through a novelist’s eyes
Thomas Mallon weaves together the familiar characters of the Watergate crisis into a credible story and conjures up all the suspense, the tension, and the excitement of those events. Read the full review.
One Nation Under Gods: A New American History by Peter Manseau — America’s surprising religious history in a highly readable book
In a book that’s full of surprises, Manseau surveys the country’s diverse religious history from the arrival of the Conquistadores and the Puritans to Scientology, the Right-Wing evangelicals, and New Age cults of recent years. Read the full review.
Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer — How the Koch brothers are revolutionizing American politics
As Warren Buffet has said, “There’s class warfare all right. But it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” The Koch brothers are at the very center of the war machine. Read the full review.
The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present by John Pomfret — A revealing history of U.S.-China relations
The destinies of the U.S. and China have been closely linked for more than a century—and began when the U.S. shed its identity as a British colony in 1776. Read the full review.
Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin — The shocking reality behind the secret US war on “terror”
1,074 federal government organizations and nearly two thousand private companies are involved with programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in at least 17,000 locations across the United States. Read the full review.
Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power by Seth Rosenfeld — J. Edgar Hoover, Ronald Reagan, and the violence in 1960s Berkeley
J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan were personally and directly engaged in managing the secret government campaigns that helped provoke the violence in 196os Berkeley. Read the full review.
The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country by Gabriel Sherman — Roger Ailes: the man who built Fox News and divided America
Roger Ailes helped swing the 2000 election to George W. Bush, championed the rise of the Tea Party, and promoted partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill. Read the full review.
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles — The first robber baron and the emergence of the corporation
Vanderbilt pieced together the massive New York Central Railroad, one of the first of the huge corporations that soon came to dominate American life. Read the full review.
The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government by David Talbot — When America’s secret government ran amok
It’s difficult not to conclude that Allen Dulles’ virtually unchallenged reign at the CIA in the 1950s was an unparalleled disaster, moving the agency into the business of assassination. Read the full review.
Other insightful books that help in understanding American history
The 53 titles that follow might be considered runners-up. All are nonfiction. They’re not arranged in any particular order.
The Longest War: Inside the Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda by Peter L. Bergen — “The Longest War”: The conflict between the U.S. and Al Qaeda
Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker — Understanding the secret American campaign against Al Qaeda
Republican Gomorra: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party by Max Blumenthal — When religion dominated the views of American conservatives
Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace by Peter Janney — The CIA murder conspiracy that ended JFK’s plan for peace (Part 1)
The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran by David Crist — The ugly US-Iran war, past, present, and future
Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse — A wrenching view of how the U.S. military fought the Vietnam War
Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin III — Berkeley in 1969: Black Panthers, the FBI, and the Vietnam War
Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love by David Talbot — From the Summer of Love to the Jonestown massacre
The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-44 by Rick Atkinson — Friendly fire and bumbling generals in WWII
Engineers of Victory: The Problem-Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War by Paul Kennedy —The problem-solvers who won World War II
The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero by Timothy Egan — The “Muslim immigrants” of the nineteenth century
The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights with One African American Family by Gail Lumet Buckley — Living the African-American experience
Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 by Adam Hochschild — The American role in the Spanish Civil War
The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace by Eric Rauchway — FDR, the gold standard, and the Great Depression
Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism by Kathryn S. Olmsted — How today’s conservatism grew in the cotton fields of California
The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency by Annie Jacobsen — The mind-boggling story of America’s top-secret military research
1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History by Jay Winik — The sad story of FDR’s complicity in the Holocaust
The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E. Hoffman — A gripping true-life tale of Cold War spycraft
The Summit: Bretton Woods, 1944: J. M. Keynes and the Reshaping of the Global Economy by Ed Conway — The clash of personalities that determined our economic history
Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II by Richard Reeves — The shameful story of Japanese-American Internment in WWII
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson — When a U-boat sank the Lusitania and changed history —
Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism by Karen M. Paget — How the CIA infiltrated the National Student Association
Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United by Zephyr Teachout — Citizens United, bribery, and corruption in America
The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein — Teacher training, normal schools, and “bad teachers”
The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire by Stephen Kinzer — The origins of the American empire
The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia by James Bradley — “Who lost China?” Nobody.
Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage by Douglas Waller — The remarkable spymaster who launched the US into espionage
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro — A masterful portrait of Lyndon Johnson as President
The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King by Rich Cohen — The amazing story of America’s Banana King
The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird — The PLO, Miss Universe, and the CIA—and it’s all true
American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church by Alex Beam — Joseph Smith: the remarkable man who founded the Mormon Church
Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned by John A. Farrell — Clarence Darrow, superstar of the Gilded Age
The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw — An outstanding biography of Joseph P. Kennedy
The Wright Brothers by David McCullough — The true (and surprising) story of the Wright Brothers
One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon by Tim Weiner — An eye-opening book about the Nixon White House
Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles by Les Standiford — How the desert town of Los Angeles became the city it is today
Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex by Michael Hiltzik — The man who fathered Big Science
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable — Malcolm X, reconsidered in the context of his time
Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T. J. Stiles — A superb biography of George Armstrong Custer
David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement by Tom Turner — The remarkable life of David Brower
Jonas Salk: A Life by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs — Jonas Salk: the doctor who cured polio and saved millions
America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century by Gabriel Thompson — The man who trained Cesar Chavez in community organizing
Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye: A balanced new biography of Bobby Kennedy
A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order by Richard A. Haass — American foreign policy in a “nonpolar” world
Bravehearts: Whistle-Blowing in the Age of Snowden by Mark Hertsgaard — National security or insecurity?
Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War by Fred Kaplan — The secret history of cyber war
Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific by Robert D. Kaplan — Competition between the U.S. and China through the lens of geopolitics
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson — A searing look at America’s broken criminal justice system
National Security and Double Government by Michael J. Glennon — Who makes national security decisions? Not the President!
Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War by Joe Bageant — On the front lines of America’s class war
The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzetti — Drones, mercenaries, and targeted murder: the new CIA strategy
Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It by Jeffrey D. Clements — Citizens United, corporate personhood, and the way forward
The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick — Historical perspective on the surprising rise of Barack Obama