From Dixons to Nixon
November 19, 2013 5:41 AM   Subscribe

I'm interested in learning more about late 20th century American history and politics, particularly the Cold War, Watergate and Nixon. What books, fiction or non-fiction, can you recommend to a non-American?

I'm from the UK, so obviously I have some understanding of US politics and culture, but I find books about US history are written for US audiences - those who lived through it, or who have studied American history in high school. (I tried reading the novel Watergate and got nowhere.) Watching Mad Men has made me realise how little I know about some of the events of the time, bar the big events such as the Kennedy assassination, Rosa Parks etc - and even those just feel like Historical Events to me, rather than things which actually happened and what they meant to those who were there at the time. I'd like to fill in the gaps in my knowledge.

I love reading 'social history' type books about different facets of pop culture or the lives of ordinary people at particular times - Dominic Sandbrook's series on Britain post-1956 for example, or the books based on the archives of the Mass Observation project. Is there an equivalent of this series for US history and culture? I have also read up a lot during my academic career on topics such as black feminism or the counterculture, but I still feel I'm lacking the wider background of the Civil Rights movement or Vietnam.
posted by mippy to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Well, if you want to learn about Watergate, there's probably no better place to start than All the President's Men, which was written by the guys who broke the story.
posted by General Malaise at 5:49 AM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm currently reading Guests of the Ayatollah, a definitive account of the Iranian hostage crisis. It's very readable, and explains a lot of the history behind what happened.
posted by Melismata at 5:54 AM on November 19, 2013

Watergate, A Novel was an EXCELLENT read. Really fun and engaging. Available on Kindle.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:55 AM on November 19, 2013

Response by poster: RB - I couldn't get into it, which prompted me to think I need some kind of Post-War America 101 reading under my belt.
posted by mippy at 6:01 AM on November 19, 2013

Another book that I think is relevant to your study is And the Band Played On. It's about the start of the AIDS epidemic in the US, and the politics that allowed so many of my friends (and ultimately the author) die.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:01 AM on November 19, 2013

Eyes on the Prize, by Juan Williams.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:03 AM on November 19, 2013

Nixonland by Perlstein might fit the bill. Some of his extrapolations to contemporary politics are a bit stretched, I'll admit, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Perlstein's previous book, Before the Storm, doesn't cover exactly the topics you mention, but is even better IMHO.
posted by hal incandenza at 6:26 AM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding Nixonland and Watergate, a novel.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 6:42 AM on November 19, 2013

Americans seem unable to discuss Kennedy or Nixon without raising their blood pressure. Have a shot at Nixon:A Life, by Britain's own Jonathan Aitken
posted by IndigoJones at 7:02 AM on November 19, 2013

You might like Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, Hunter S. Thompson's book about the 1972 election, which is based on his reportage for Rolling Stone. I think the fact that it is so very much of its moment helped me understand some of the dynamics in play in American politics better than a retrospective, more considered work of the Halberstam ilk would have --- Thompson occasionally goes off on long introspective rants and is very firmly in the counterculture camp himself, but that gives him a useful outsider perspective on some of the currents in the mainstream parties. And '72 turned out to be an especially auspicious year for that perspective --- the fracture of the Democratic Party into younger radicals and old New Deal power brokers allowed for an insurgent candidate to win the nomination, and essentially guaranteed Nixon's 2nd term, setting the stage for Watergate.
posted by Diablevert at 7:16 AM on November 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

After getting your fill of Watergate, I enjoyed 31 Days, which covers the transition to the Ford presidency and the issues over the Nixon pardon.
posted by hwyengr at 7:26 AM on November 19, 2013

Cold War -- fiction or non-fiction?

Not a book, but to learn about the Cold War you have to watch Dr. Strangelove!
posted by third rail at 8:18 AM on November 19, 2013

The President's Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity covers a lot more ground than the specific era you mention, but I found it fascinating. The earlier history sets precedent for how things were handled during later years, of course. The book is full of details about how things really work in the White House, and is written in a very engaging and conversational style.
posted by The Deej at 8:18 AM on November 19, 2013

Freedom Bound is a good introduction to the civil rights movement from the '50s to the '70s. The upheavals around race that happened in the U.S. during this period are essential for understanding much of the cultural, social, and political shifts that happened here, even if your focus is more broadly on the cold war, Watergate, etc.
posted by scody at 8:33 AM on November 19, 2013

It's the fact that you're from the UK that is making me give this a good think; I don't want to just assume that the books I recommend you would be thorough, or whether any of them would assume that you were raised here and would thus know stuff.

Actually, in that case, lemme take a slightly different tack first - I'll recommend a book that'd be pretty good at giving you a crash course in American history. Graphic novelist Larry Gonick specializes in really well-written and exhaustive "cartoon guides" to a lot of topics, and he's done a Cartoon History of the United States. It only covers up to the year 1990 or so, but it's still really comprehensive, and also doesn't necessarily have an obvious "agenda". Reading that may give you a decent grounding in some of the "backstory" of the other books you're hearing about here.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:47 AM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, another book trilogy - that's also a fascinating read - is the Memory Of Fire trilogy by Eduardo Galleano. That deals with the history of all the Americas rather than just the United States, but it's from a Uruguayan writer so it's not a U.S. perspective. And it does cover a good deal of the doings of the United States - the US was very active in Western Hemisphere politics behind the scenes in the post-World-War-II era, and Galleano makes no bones about how their actions were sometimes less than savory. His writing is heady stuff, though - it's written in a magic realism style, done as just a whole series of short vignettes. But some of the vignettes deal with political events, while others are just social history commentary.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:51 AM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nixon Agonistes is history and biography, and an extended essay on political theory.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 9:39 AM on November 19, 2013

It's fiction, but it does a really good job of explaining just how paranoid and frightened certain elements in the US were during the cold war.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 5:50 PM on November 19, 2013

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