By Jeffrey D. Sachs
The students of the great philosopher Aristotle walked alongside the master as he expounded his wisdom, thus becoming known as the Peripatetics, those who walked the pathways of Aristotle’s school. Fast forward 2,350 years, and I find myself peripatetically hanging on to the words of today’s great masters, this time on audiobook, while I circumambulate Central Park’s walkways on a daily reprieve from Covid-19 isolation. During these walks, I have been savoring the brilliance of today’s outstanding historians and their recent books that shine a new light on America’s complicated past.
One of these wondrous masters is historian Martin Sherwin, professor of history at George Mason University. Prof. Sherwin is the world’s leading historian of the Atomic Age: the scientific development of the atomic bomb, its use against Japan, and its role during the Cold War. Forty-five years ago, Sherwin wrote a scintillating account of the diplomacy of the early phase of the nuclear era in The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance, renamed in later editions A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies. In 2005, Sherwin coauthored with Kai Bird the book American Prometheus, the definitive biography of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director at Los Alamos and “father of the atomic bomb.” Late last year, he published Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I’ve logged dozens of hours on the three books, and have been utterly spellbound by Sherwin’s astounding capacity to understand historical events in the fullness of context: not only what happened, but what each participant understood about the events, and how and why crucial decisions that define our age actually came to be. Gambling with Armageddon is riveting: terrifying, fascinating, and often shocking. It tells the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, explaining the roots of nuclear brinksmanship back to 1945, and then describing the harrowing events during the crisis itself in October, 1962 on essentially an hour-by-hour basis. This story has never before been told with such depth of knowledge, breadth of historical understand, and sheer doggedness in tracking down the truth. I hung on every word for 18 hours and 50 minutes. You will too.
As a virtuoso historian, Sherwin has a remarkable knack for compellingly letting us know that the past is not quite how we remember it. The problem is not about our forgetting what we knew or thought we knew; the problem is that we never knew the truth, not as events were unfolding, and not afterword, because truth is elusive, and deliberately hidden from view by crafty disguise, manipulation, confusion, and misdirection. I did not know until listening to Sherwin’s magnificent book how Adlai Stevenson, in October, 1962 played a powerful, perhaps decisive role in saving the world. Nor did I appreciate the important role of UN Secretary-General U Thant. John F. Kennedy, I am relieved to say, is also a hero of Sherwin’s account, a relief for me as a lifelong fan of JFK and the author of a book about JFK during 1963 (To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace, 2013).
Our digital age offers not only the treat of such wonderful audiobooks, but also the chance to Zoom with the writers of these marvelous tomes. After listening to Sherwin’s books and those of several other historians, I decided to launch a book club and podcast this year to share the joy and wisdom of these marvelous writers.
Later this month, on February 24, I will be discussing another new dazzling history, The Color of Law, written by Richard Rothstein. The author is a distinguished fellow of the Economic Policy Institute and a senior fellow (emeritus) at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Rothstein’s book is captivating in its insights into America’s racist past. I thought I knew much of that history, but Rothstein takes our awareness and knowledge to a new level in his tour de force.
Perhaps I’ll see you as a fellow peripatetic on the Central Park walkways listening to these mesmerizing books. If not in the Park, please join me in the online Book Club with Jeffrey Sachs in discussions with these amazing authors. Throughout the year, we’ll have a chance to listen to and converse with leading thinkers who are helping us understand our past and our way forward.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is University Professor at Columbia University.