Books for the Century: The United States
The Pentagon Papers: Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force
By The Vietnam Task Force
Office of the Secretary of Defense, 47 volumes., 2011, pp.
For our centennial issue, our reviewers each selected a set of books essential to understanding the past century and another set essential for imagining the century ahead.
Citizens’ movements transformed the United States in the second half of the twentieth century, including the campaigns for civil rights, women’s rights, and the environment. In the last case, the spark took the form of a single book: Carson’s groundbreaking account of environmental destruction. Excerpted in The New Yorker before its publication in 1962, the book sold two million hardcover copies in two years. Carson was a little-known oceanographer who had spent much of her career writing brochures for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But her book had a seismic impact with its elegant prose and well-documented depiction of a world bathed in toxic chemicals, of the deleterious consequences of those chemicals for human health, and of misinformation campaigns by the chemical industry that public officials passively accepted. Industry groups attempted to dismiss her as a communist or a hysterical woman, but the attacks did not prevent her work from winning the approval of the scientific community and from becoming not just mainstream but a classic still in print after more than half a century. The book led to the banning of the pesticide DDT, helped create the Environmental Protection Agency, and stoked broad concerns about clean air and water, land and wildlife conversation, and, eventually, climate change.
Also first published as excerpts, the Pentagon Papers had a similar impact. A massive internal history of U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967, the study was leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, a national security analyst, to The New York Times in 1971. Four presidential administrations, the study said, had actively misled the public about U.S. intentions and actions in Vietnam. The government of Lyndon Johnson had “systematically lied.” In the government’s own words, the study validated the arguments of the growing antiwar movement. More subtly, for enormous numbers of Americans, the realization that their government could have lied to them for decades came as a visceral—in some cases life-changing—shock. Arguing that the Pentagon Papers were a direct threat to national security, the administration of Richard Nixon attempted to stop its publication. Within days, the Supreme Court ruled 6–3 against the government, writing that “paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people.” Followed quickly by the Watergate break-in and the subsequent scandal that ultimately forced Nixon’s resignation, the Pentagon Papers helped spur the devastating decline in public trust in government that has continued to the present.
Distrust in state power permeated the culture. Orwell’s classic novel has introduced more Americans to the essence of totalitarianism than any other work of fiction or nonfiction. Orwell meant to warn against what could happen through the perversion of a government of either the right or the left, but during the Cold War, most American readers understood the novel’s references to Big Brother, the Thought Police, the Ministry of Truth, and the rewriting of history specifically as depictions of communist regimes. In the Trump era, however, the book acquired an entirely new resonance. Orwell’s invocation of the “alterable” past echoes today as “alternative facts.” “Newspeak” is identifiable as “fake news.” Ubiquitous social media trolls and hackers are instantly recognizable as analogous to Orwell’s “telescreen” that cannot be turned off. Lies propagated from unaccountable sources are as effective as government-controlled propaganda—perhaps more so. Torture isn’t necessary: a public can voluntarily accept disinformation and submit to omnipresent surveillance. The world today is utterly transformed from 1949, but 70 years after its publication, Orwell’s grim dystopia is still as chilling and as fresh as it was then.
The twenty-first century will be defined in part by the U.S.-Chinese relationship and its possible devolution into war. China’s meteoric economic and technological rise over the past few decades, the end of U.S. global economic dominance, and the deepening cracks in American democracy make the threat all too real. Rudd offers the best available treatment of this potential clash and how it might be avoided. He speaks fluent Mandarin and has visited China more than 100 times during and after his stints as prime minister of Australia. His sober assessment of the high risk of war (Chinese President Xi Jinping is “a man in a hurry when it comes to Taiwan”) makes more urgent his call for much deeper mutual understanding “of the other side’s strategic thinking” and the need to “conceptualize a world” where the two powers can “competitively coexist.”
The ability of artificial intelligence to overturn every aspect of human society—from the nature of work to who (or what) makes decisions about war—will have even greater consequences in the years ahead. Lee, the Taiwanese-born, U.S.-educated and -trained former president of Google China, is a globally recognized ai expert who can write for the uninitiated. His book, a collaboration with Chinese science-fiction writer Chen, combines ten imaginary—often terrifying—stories of ai’s potential impacts with Lee’s clearheaded analysis of the issues each raises. He is surprisingly optimistic. “We are the masters of our fate,” he writes, “and no technological revolution will ever change that.” Theoretically, that should be true; in practice, it may not be.
Much of what the United States tries to do abroad in the coming century (and therefore what the international community can do collectively) depends on whether U.S. leaders can sort out their own house first. Extreme polarization in American society has eroded faith in the norms and institutions that make democracy possible. Much has been written about the evolving style of authoritarianism around the world, and many authors have tried to explain, without notable success, what motivates the legions of Americans who back former U.S. President Donald Trump. But few books go beyond the recent past to the deep roots of the United States’ current political discontent. Two works by the historian Hofstadter written 60 years ago offer more answers about the future by probing further into the past. The books examine the long-standing opposition to ideas, to elites, to expertise, and to learning in U.S. political history; the powerful role of evangelical Christianity (long before it became an explicitly political movement) in opposition to school desegregation, civil and voting rights, women’s rights, and abortion; and the constant pull of conspiracy theories on the right, principally, but also the left. Hofstadter’s pinpointing of what moves “the arena of uncommonly angry minds” provides a clearer understanding of the United States’ current polarization than the dozens of books focused on “Trumpism.”
Works by Sheri Berman, John Maynard Keynes, and Others