3 years ago

Top 20 popular books for understanding American history

understanding american history: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Since I began writing Mal Warwick on Books in 2010, I’ve read and reviewed more than 200 popular 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 20 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 more than 60 others you may also find illuminating.

Included among the 80+ 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, one of the 20 top books in this post is a novel. All the rest are nonfiction, except where otherwise noted in the lists of runners-up that follow.

This post was updated on April 14, 2021.

The top 20 books for understanding American history

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.

Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding… Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis by Sam Anderson—America revealed through the lens of a single mid-sized city

The sometimes shocking history of Oklahoma City illuminates the essence of America, as this entertaining account makes abundantly clear. 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.

Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America by Kurt Andersen—How America lost its way and ended up at war with itself

The extreme economic inequality and political polarization we experience today is the fruit of a half-century campaign by Big Business and the ultrarich to reverse the liberal consensus that produced economic growth and a robust middle class in the wake of World War II. Read the full review.

Drive! Henry Ford, George Selden, and the Race to Invent the Auto Age by Lawrence Goldstone—This thrilling account of the early auto industry sets the record straight on Henry Ford

Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. Nor was he the first automaker to introduce interchangeable parts and mass production. Instead, his chief talents lie as a manager and businessman. Read the full review.

How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr—A supremely entertaining history of American empire

Immerwahr’s argument rests on a contemporary understanding of empire that encompasses all the many ways the United States extends its influence all across the globe. He refers to this 21st-century reality as a “pointillist empire” that no longer requires the US to occupy extensive territory overseas. Today, Immerwahr asserts, “powerful countries project their influence through globalization rather than colonization.” But the preeminence of the United States rests on several unique advantages. 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.

Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream by Nicholas Lemann—Economic inequality deconstructed in a brilliant historical study

Lemann traces the evolution of the three “big ideas” that have guided economic policymakers in the decades since World War I. He characterizes them as institutions, transactions, and networks. These three ideas “have a common thread. They share a kind of conceptual grandeur, a conviction that if we aim at producing a good society by adopting one all-encompassing principle, the result will be positive for everybody.” But Lemann soundly rejects this notion. 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 Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America by Daniel Okrent—The racist movement that stopped immigration a century ago

The tides of otherism have ebbed and flowed throughout five centuries of American history. Racism. Antisemitism. Xenophobia. From the genocide of the continent’s native peoples, to the enslavement of millions of transplanted Africans, to the Know-Nothing fury toward Irish immigrants and Catholics, to the racist violence and perversions of justice under Jim Crow, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the exclusionary policies of the Trump Administration, the fear, ignorance, and insecurity that give rise to otherism have always been with us. Now, in The Guarded Gate, Daniel Okrent surveys one slice of this sad history by examining the racist movement that effectively halted immigration a century ago. He does so with lucid prose and a meticulous appraisal of the facts. 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.

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.

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter—A gripping tale about the early American labor movement

For several decades in the mid-twentieth century, America’s middle class prospered and grew. A vigorous labor movement gained livable wages and steadily expanding benefits for millions. To some extent, labor owed its central role in the economy to the reforms of the New Deal and the social change wrought by World War II. From an historical perspective, however, the success of trade unionism rested on the heroic efforts of labor organizers beginning late in the nineteenth century as they battled the entrenched power of the Robber Barons who dominated American industry. The better histories of the period between the Civil War and the First World War give some sense of the monumental challenges the early American labor movement faced from rich men unafraid to use the most extreme violence to protect their millions. But it takes a novelist to convey the intimate detail that makes their stories truly memorable—as Jess Walter has done so brilliantly in The Cold Millions. Read the full review.

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard—Understanding America’s polarization and how we got to now

Does the Red State-Blue State analysis of recent US elections make sense to you? Or pointing to the difference between Republicans and Democrats to explain election outcomes? Colin Woodward doesn’t think either one is useful in explaining how and why we vote as we do. Nor, in his opinion, are the boundaries that define our fifty states or the regions normally termed Northeast, Midwest, South, and so forth. None of these arbitrary distinctions stand up to scrutiny in light of the cultural history he relates so beautifully in his eye-opening book, American Nations. To understand polarization as it defines the American project today, reading this book is a must. Read the full review.

Other insightful books that help in understanding American history

More than 60 other titles follow that might be considered runners-up. All are nonfiction. They’re arranged in alphabetical  order by the authors’ last names.

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen — Conspiracy theories, fake news, and other delusions in American history

One Person No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy by Carol Anderson — Voter suppression, gerrymandering, and voter ID laws brilliantly explained

A Warning by Anonymous, a Senior Trump Administration Official—An anonymous White House Republican tells all

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-44 by Rick Atkinson — Friendly fire and bumbling generals in WWII

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War by Joe Bageant — On the front lines of America’s class war

Pelosi by Molly Ball—A critical but admiring biography of Nancy Pelosi

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

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

American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power by Andrea Bernstein—The Trumps and the Kushners: the backstory

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

The Rest of Us”: The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews by Stephen Birmingham—Start here to understand Jews in America

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

Republican Gomorra: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party by Max Blumenthal — When religion dominated the views of American conservatives

The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King—The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea by Walter R. Borneman—The four men who led the US Navy in WWII

The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia by James Bradley — “Who lost China?” Nobody.

The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights with One African American Family by Gail Lumet Buckley — Living the African-American experience

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro — A masterful portrait of Lyndon Johnson as President

The Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman—Reflecting on 100 years of landmark ACLU cases

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 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

Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science that Changed the Course of World War II by Jennet Conant—The amateur scientist who helped deliver radar and the atomic bomb

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

Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary by Geoffrey Cowan—Teddy Roosevelt: progressive, champion of primary elections, and a racist

The Fall of Japan: The Final Weeks of World War II in the Pacific by William Craig—The ugly background to Japan’s unconditional surrender

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

American Disruptor: The Scandalous Life of Leland Stanford by Roland de Wolk—The California Governor who was a notorious thief

The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz, and a Village Caught in Between by Michael Dobbs—Did FDR betray the Jews of Europe?

The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero by Timothy Egan — The “Muslim immigrants” of the nineteenth century

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

Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned by John A. Farrell — Clarence Darrow, superstar of the Gilded Age

Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA by Amaryllis Fox—Life undercover in the CIA chasing suitcase nukes

Unconditional: The Japanese Surrender in World War II by Marc Gallicchio—The unconditional Japanese surrender in WWII

National Security and Double Government by Michael J. Glennon — Who makes national security decisions? Not the President!

The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein — Teacher training, normal schools, and “bad teachers”

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

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

The Hidden History of the War on Voting: Who Stole Your Vote — and How to Get It Back by Thom Hartmann—The Republican war on voting unmasked

The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings — A revisionist history of intelligence in World War II

The Bridge at Remagen by Ken Hechler—The strategic breakthrough that opened the Allies’ way to Berlin

Bravehearts: Whistle-Blowing in the Age of Snowden by Mark Hertsgaard — National security or insecurity?

Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex by Michael Hiltzik — The man who fathered Big Science

Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 by Adam Hochschild — The American role in the Spanish Civil War

Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes by Adam Hochschild—Early 20th-century America viewed through the life of one extraordinary woman

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

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston—The last living former slave tells his story

Jonas Salk: A Life by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs — Jonas Salk: the doctor who cured polio and saved millions

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

Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace by Peter Janney — Why did JFK die? The most convincing explanation I’ve ever read

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

The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb by Sam Kean—The secret mission to stop the Nazi atomic bomb

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi—Racism still kills

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 True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire by Stephen Kinzer — The origins of the American empire

The Stakes: 2020 and the Survival of American Democracy by Robert Kuttner—Why we need to elect a progressive Democratic President in 2020

Freedom’s Detective: The Secret Service, the Ku Klux Klan and the Man Who Masterminded America’s First War on Terror by Charles Lane—The first man who fought the Ku Klux Klan—and won

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

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson — When a U-boat sank the Lusitania and changed history

The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr—An investigative journalist tackles the American supermarket

Watergate by Thomas Mallon — Watergate through a novelist’s eyes

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, by Thomas Mallon — Ronald Reagan deconstructed in a new Thomas Mallon novel

Landfall by Thomas Mallon—A novelist’s sympathetic portrait of George W. Bush

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable — Malcolm X, reconsidered in the context of his time

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

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough — The true (and surprising) story of the Wright Brothers

The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton by Jefferson Morley—James Jesus Angleton, the man who nearly destroyed the CIA

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy — The amazing story of the American “Code Girls” who helped win World War II

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw — An outstanding biography of Joseph P. Kennedy

Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown by Jim Newton—Jerry Brown: politician, would-be monk, “man of tomorrow?”

A Promised Land by Barack Obama—Barack Obama’s memoir is a literary tour de force

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

Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson—The men behind the British-American partnership in WWII

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

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

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

The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It by Robert B. Reich—Robert Reich explains how the ultra-wealthy have rigged the system

The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick — Historical perspective on the surprising rise of Barack Obama

Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party, by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost—Tea Party politics may not be what you think

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

Empire of Resentment: Populism’s Toxic Embrace of Nationalism by Lawrence Rosenthal—A scholar of Right-Wing politics dissects the Trump coalition

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

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

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson — A searing look at America’s broken criminal justice system

Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T. J. Stiles — A superb biography of George Armstrong Custer

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

Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United by Zephyr Teachout — Citizens United, bribery, and corruption in America

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

David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement by Tom Turner — The remarkable life of David Brower

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

Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye: A balanced new biography of Bobby Kennedy

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

One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon by Tim Weiner — An eye-opening book about the Nixon White House 

1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History by Jay Winik — The sad story of FDR’s complicity in the Holocaust

The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age by Tim Wu—It’s time for antitrust: break up big corporations to restore democracy

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