Must Read Book

Sherry, Michael, In the Shadow of War: The United States since the 1930s (1995).

I'm not sure if Michael Sherry's In the Shadow of War: The United States since the 1930s (Yale, 1995) should be listed as "best" or "neglected." A book that was reviewed in the New York Review of Books by Garry Wills can hardly be called neglected, but my impression is that is read mostly by political or military historians and is often ignored by social historians, who may take the title of the book too literally. That is a mistake. Sherry's theme is not war per se but the militarization of American society, and he does a superb job of integrating social, political, even cultural history into this broad interpretive framework. He pays close attention to the effects of war and the threat of war on women and African Americans. Sherry has an astute awareness of the ambiguous and even contradictory impact of militarization on many aspects of American life. The furor over an overseas exhibit of modernist art by the State Department in 1947, for example, "did not simply mean the conscription of cultural resources to wage hot or cold war, or a culture that celebrated national power. It meant also the manifold ways in which Americans couched their cultural anxieties and ambition in terms of national security, and in which anxieties about the nation's safety suffused culture." Is his thesis overstated? Perhaps. Are there other factors that are as important as militarization in shaping American history since the 1930s? Yes. But especially at the present, when the United States is again slipping into a "war" mentality, no one should ignore the argument that Sherry has set forth so persuasively in this impressive synthesis.

Recommended by Ken Kusmer, Temple University

Kenneth L. Kusmer is professor of History at Temple University where he teaches American social history and recent American history. A graduate of Oberlin College, he received the M.A. from Kent State University, where he studied with August Meier, and the Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago, where he studied with Neil Harris, John Hope Franklin, and John Coatsworth. He is the author of A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930}(University of Illinois Press) and Down and Out, On the Road: The Homeless in American History (Oxford University Press).