1. Hands Off
By Dexter Perkins
Little, Brown, 1941
All presidents since George Washington have dealt with diplomatic problems and conducted foreign policy. Washington, in his farewell address (“it is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances”), sought to advise successors who would have to deal with Napoleon, Barbary pirates and armed conflict with Britain, but it was James Monroe who was the first chief executive to establish a working principle of U.S foreign policy designed for indefinite use. Dexter Perkins’s “Hands Off” is a graceful account of the origins and later history of the Monroe Doctrine—which, in 1823, declared the Western hemisphere off-limits to European colonial expansion. The doctrine did more than survive Monroe’s two terms; it became a permanent feature of American policy down to the present day—an astonishing achievement for a parenthetical section of an annual message to Congress.
2. The Diary of James K. Polk
Edited by Allan Nevins
It is a genuine curiosity that few presidents have kept diaries. The best that we have—the daily reflections of James Knox Polk—is a window into the workings of the 19th-century presidency as well as into the soul of a deliberately enigmatic man. The Tennessean Polk was an austere, detached, deeply jaundiced chronicler, a cold-blooded analyst of men and events, so it is a paradoxical delight to find him pouring out his nightly frustrations in plain language: “Mr. Buchanan is an able man, but is in small matters without judgment and sometimes acts like an old maid.” The president also records, with satisfaction, his frequent triumphs. The Polk presidency dealt with diplomatic matters—e.g., settling the U.S.-Canada boundary with Britain—and the state of relations with our troublous southern neighbor. Here, in a candid presidential account, is the annexation of Texas, the war with Mexico, and the addition of Arizona, New Mexico, and California to the United States.
3. Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power
By Howard K. Beale
Johns Hopkins, 1956
In the mid-1950s, when historians were beginning to contend with the origins of Pax Americana and Theodore Roosevelt’s reputation was at its lowest ebb, historian Howard K. Beale delivered a series of lectures—collected in this book— designed to answer two questions. First, to what extent is history influenced by individuals such as presidents; second, how did Roosevelt, in his embrace of global power, arrive at his convictions and become the first commander in chief actively to project American power around the globe? Beale’s account is comprehensive, accessible and fair-minded. But it is also a product of its times, the mid-1950s. In its sense of the “tragedy” of TR’s engagement with the world, leading by stages to the Cold War, the book is a template for academic dissent from American policy.
4. The Intimate Papers of Colonel House
Edited by Charles Seymour
Houghton Mifflin, 1926
Edward Mandell House was a wealthy, Cornell-educated Texas banker and businessman and an early backer of Woodrow Wilson. House declined a cabinet appointment, preferring to remain accessible to Wilson and “serve wherever and whenever possible.” As a trusted presidential adviser and troubleshooter—to an unprecedented degree—House negotiated for peace in Europe during the early phases of World War I, later serving as America’s liaison with the Allies in London. House helped draft Wilson’s Fourteen Points plan to end the war and worked closely with the president on the Versailles Treaty and the Covenant of the League of Nations. But then he was abruptly dismissed from the prickly Wilson’s inner circle. “The Intimate Papers of Colonel House” offers the most exhaustive, authoritative account we have of President Wilson’s thoughts and actions.
5. For the Survival of Democracy
By Alonzo L. Hamby
Free Press, 2004
No single president is more important to American foreign policy in our time than Franklin D. Roosevelt, and there is no better account of FDR’s stout defense of democracy against the twin dangers of Nazism and Soviet Communism than Alonzo L. Hamby’s great work. His thesis concerns the extent to which the Depression blighted the modern world by scuttling post-World War I prosperity, weakening democratic capitalism in Europe and America at its moment of greatest peril, and rendering a second military cataclysm inevitable. FDR had to contend with the Depression while awakening his countrymen to Hitler’s menace and stiffening the spines of European democrats. The consensus on the New Deal remains unsettled; but Roosevelt’s global leadership in the late 1930s and throughout World War II made America the superpower it remains.
Mr. Terzian, literary editor of the Weekly Standard, is the author of “Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century.”