I don’t know if the leading candidates for the American Presidency are big on reading history, but I would like to recommend to them five books to read before taking the office. These provide wisdom and insight that would help our new President do their job well.
My first suggestion is William Cronon’s Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. This book is considered one of the first and best books of environmental history. I mentioned it in my Thanksgiving greeting last November.
There are several themes in Changes in the Land which are important for our incoming President. Cronon makes clear the problems that come from the clash of two different cultures. European colonists and Native Americans had fundamentally different views on how nature provides for human wellbeing. Both used nature to support human lives, but the understanding of how that could or should be done was different. Importantly, the European commodification of nature’s bounty produced adverse effects for both them and the Indians. As we deal with the rest of the world’s peoples in the 21st Century, recognizing differences, particularly differences in power, would serve our next President well. Equally important, we will need to understand that everything important in our lives cannot be reduced to mere commodity.
This theme is seen even more clearly in my second choice for Presidential reads, J.R.R. McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. Our new President needs to understand the uniqueness of the time in which we live. Since most of us have lived our lives in the post-World War II era, it is difficult to appreciate intuitively that the last seventy years are unprecedented in human history. This is true in terms of both the growth of humans on this planet and the growth in per capita consumption. Never before have so many people consumed so much. It is a mistake to think this growth can continue unabated.
To come to understand the significance of McNeill’s story of the 20th Century, our new President should also read the book McNeill wrote with his father William McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History. The United States is not the first great nation in human history, several have come and gone before us. Understanding the comings and goings of the great civilizations is imperative for wise decision making about our collective future. The McNeill’s book covers similar ground as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel or Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules – for Now, but I think does so more effectively. The McNeills explain the fundamental process of gaining wealth and power among nations in the world. They say, “Local differences remained profound, but an encompassing process of trial and error rewarded all those changes in social organization, technique, and communication that enhanced deliberate control both over natural resources and over concerted human effort. We are still caught in this historic process and unlikely to escape it, simply because most people, most of the time, prefer collective and personal wealth and power to poverty and weakness, even at the cost of subordination to rules and commands issued by distant strangers.” Does this not describe our behaviors today?
My fourth title for the new President to consider is David Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear: the American People in Depression and War, 1929 – 1952. While we are now three or four generations away from the end of World War II, the period of time covered by Kennedy still frames our nation’s role in the world today. No events of the past 100 years are as important to the world our new President will navigate as are the Great Depression and the Great World War. I want whoever is president to understand how we survived those times as a nation and the lessons those times have for surviving in the future.
Speaking of lessons, my last recommendation for the new President is Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly, particularly the last section, America Betrays Herself in Vietnam. By the 1990s American’s seemed to have learned only one important lesson from our decades-long involvement in Vietnam — we should treat returning veterans with dignity and respect. We should care for the physical and psychological wounds of those we send to distant lands to fight our battles for us.
Tuchman reminds us that there are other equally important lessons from the Vietnam War we have forgotten. When we err in foreign adventures, we need not compound the error by denying it. Saving face is less important than recognizing our mistakes and changing course. Furthermore, we need to recognize that the exercise of American military or economic might harms us if that exercise of power violates the core values of the nation. She argued that we failed to understand in Vietnam, “…that problems and conflicts exist among other peoples that are not soluble by the application of American force or American techniques or even American goodwill.” Let us not fail to understand that in the future.
So, what do you say Hillary, Donald, Bernie, Ted, or Marco, do you have time in your busy schedules for a few good books?