I have been on a Churchill binge recently. I have just finished The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson. Before that, I read the definitive Andrew Roberts biography Churchill: Walking with Destiny and Hero of the Empire about Churchill's time in South Africa by Candice Millard. Churchill is a gift to any halfway decent writer, as I discovered in writing my book about the end of World War II, Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman--from World War to Cold War. He is so colorful that it is hard not to make him interesting.
What sets Larson's book apart from others on the Blitz, and the first year of Churchill's premiership, is that he has skillfully weaved in the stories of other, lesser known characters, such as John Colville, his private secretary, and Mary Churchill, his daughter, into the narrative. In doing so, Larson not only tells a wonderful story, he makes the point that history is not just about the great and the powerful. In the shadow of history-making characters like Churchill and Roosevelt and Hitler and Stalin, ordinary life continues. People fall in love, struggle with their own personal demons, are happy or unhappy, laugh and cry.
Tolstoy understood this too, of course: it's pretty much the same formula he uses in War and Peace. It's also a formula I have used in my own books, including the latest, King Richard: Nixon and Watergate — an American tragedy. In Six Months in 1945, I devoted several paragraphs to describing the lack of toilets at the Yalta conference, which forced delegates to relieve themselves beneath a statue of Lenin in the garden of the tsar's summer retreat. Some readers criticized me for that, but that's real life, the way delegates to the Yalta conference experienced it at the time. As one of them remarked in his diary, the toilet situation was the second most discussed subject at Yalta after World War II itself.
So yes, I agree with Larson and Tolstoy that history is about the little people too...
To coincide with the publication of my new book, King Richard, on Nixon and Watergate, I have compiled a list of the top five books for understanding why America's iconic political scandal happened. These are the books that were most helpful to me in my own research, as I tried to figure out the motivations of the principal characters.
1. Richard Nixon: The Life by John Farrell.
In order to understand Watergate, you first have to understand Richard Nixon. This is the best, single-volume biography that chronicles Nixon's life in a balanced and fair way that gives us great insight into his character and motivations. Published in 2017, it is a model of its kind. Farrell attempts neither to vilify Nixon nor to defend him, but to explain him, in the context of his times. He gives us the extraordinary story of the self-made man from a struggling Quaker family in California who rose to the top through his own efforts - and then threw it all away through his own fatal flaws. Many of Nixon's gambles succeeded. Watergate was the one that failed.
2. The Haldeman Diaries by H.R. Haldeman.
There was no one closer to Richard Nixon as Watergate unfolded than his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman. Every evening, Haldeman dictated an audio diary that is an essential source for understanding the Nixon presidency and the chain of events that led to its unraveling. While Haldeman admired Nixon, he was also well aware of his faults. He records the triumphs, failures, and personal quirks of his boss on an almost minute-to-minute basis. I think that Haldeman has it right when he concludes that Nixon did not know about Watergate in advance, in the sense that he did not order the break-in, but certainly caused it, in the sense that he created the culture that spawned all the abuses. Ultimately, these abuses led to Haldeman's own resignation and eighteen months in prison for Watergate-related offenses.
3. Will by G. Gordon Liddy.
Gordon Liddy was an extraordinary character, a swaggering former FBI agent who was on a self-imposed mission to save America from "communism," even if it meant breaking the law. Even Nixon thought that Liddy was "a little nuts" but needed him as part of his campaign to get even with the Democrats and opponents of the war in Vietnam. In heading up the Watergate break-in, Liddy turned out to be a bungling amateur whose incompetence led directly to the failure of the operation. Nevertheless, he wrote one of the best books about Watergate--one that is both entertaining and revealing in its outrageous frankness and colorful descriptions of his fellow conspirators. A self-described admirer of Adolf Hitler, Liddy is a forerunner to the "patriots" who stormed Congress in January 2021 to "defend democracy." Liddy's 1996 autobiography is key to understanding the mentality that led to Watergate and continues to pose a threat to American democracy.
4. Blind Ambition by John Dean
Dean's book is essential to understanding the psychodrama that led to the unraveling of the Watergate conspiracy. An ambitious lawyer picked to serve as White House counsel at the age of thirty-one, Dean feared that he was being set up to take the blame for Watergate. He was the first Nixon aide to appreciate the legal perils of the cover-up and the risks he was being asked to run. In order to save himself, he had to exit the conspiracy, betraying the president who was relying on him to throw a blanket over the scandal. In this 1976 memoir, Dean provides a candid account of his state of mind as he led a double life - Nixon loyalist by day, prosecution informant by night. Juggling the conflicting pressures, he began drinking ever more heavily, leading to a crisis in his marriage that provides a dramatic personal counterpoint to the crisis in the White House.
5. Abuse of Power by Stanley Kutler.
Had Nixon not taped himself in secret, it is doubtful that he would have been forced to resign as president of the United States. While some of the most incriminating tapes were released as a result of a Supreme Court order, the remainder became the subject of a long legal tussle that continued for several decades. Nobody did more to secure the full release of the tapes than the historian Stanley Kutler who published highlights in his 1997 book, Abuse of Power. The tapes provide a unique insight into the functioning of the modern-day presidency, and Nixon's own personality, that is unlikely ever to be matched. Thanks to Kutler's efforts, we are able to hear Nixon in his own words and feel his pain and bewilderment as his world disintegrates around him.
Michael Dobbs is the author of seven books, including the best-selling One Minute to Midnight. His latest book, King Richard, is about Nixon and Watergate.