The best books to understand WW2 from eyewitnesses and historians

Steven Casey Author Of The War Beat, Pacific: The American Media at War Against Japan
By Steven Casey

Who am I?

Steven Casey is Professor in International History at the LSE. A specialist in US foreign policy, he is the author of ten books, including Cautious Crusade, which explored American attitudes toward Nazi Germany during World War II; Selling the Korean War, which won both the Truman Book Award and the Neustadt Prize for best book in American Politics; and When Soldiers Fall which also won the Neustadt Prize. In 2017, he published War Beat, Europe: The American Media at War against Nazi Germany, which won the American Journalism Historians Association 2018 book of the year, the panel judging it “a landmark work.” 


I wrote...

The War Beat, Pacific: The American Media at War Against Japan

By Steven Casey,

Book cover of The War Beat, Pacific: The American Media at War Against Japan

What is my book about?

The definitive history of American war reporting in the Pacific theater of World War II, from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After almost two years slogging with infantrymen through North Africa, Italy, and France, Ernie Pyle immediately realized he was ill-prepared for covering the Pacific War. As Pyle and other war correspondents discovered, the climate, the logistics, and the sheer scope of the Pacific theater had no parallel in the war America was fighting in Europe.

The War Beat, Pacific shows how foreign correspondents ran up against practical challenges and risked their lives to get stories in a theater that was far more challenging than the war against Nazi Germany, while the US government blocked news of the war against Japan and tried to focus the home front on Hitler and his atrocities.

The books I picked & why

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In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War

By David Reynolds,

Book cover of In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War

Why this book?

“Another book on Churchill?” asks Reynolds on the first page. “Can there be anything new to say?” Yes, is the emphatic answer. Churchill’s magisterial memoir shaped how many readers came to understand World War II. In this equally magisterial book, Reynolds dissects how Churchill wrote his memoir, exploring how the politics of the post-war era were often as important in shaping Churchill’s judgments as the events of the war itself. Methodologically sophisticated and elegantly written.


An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943

By Rick Atkinson,

Book cover of An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943

Why this book?

Atkinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning opener to his World War II trilogy reads like a novel. It also succeeds in the almost impossible task of bringing military history alive, weaving expertly drawn biographies of individuals at all levels of the US military into a grand narrative of the campaign to liberate North Africa in 1942-43.


Implacable Foes: War in the Pacific, 1944-1945

By Marc Gallicchio, Waldo Heinrichs,

Book cover of Implacable Foes: War in the Pacific, 1944-1945

Why this book?

While written in a more scholarly style than Atkinson, Heinrichs and Galliccio’s account is an essential companion volume. Atkinson focuses on the US military in its first major offensive. Heinrichs and Galliccio assess how it had evolved by the last year of the Pacific War. Throughout, their book expertly integrates military, diplomatic, and political history—three often-overlooked subjects in contemporary scholarly history—showing how American politicians and strategists, officers and fighting men managed to bring the war to a successful conclusion, while retaining overwhelming public support.


Brave Men

By Ernie Pyle,

Book cover of Brave Men

Why this book?

I came close to picking James Tobin’s brilliant biography, Ernie’s Pyle’s War, but decided that it was impossible to overlook Pyle’s own prose. This anthology contains the articles he wrote in Sicily, Italy, and France in 1943-44. It shows, more movingly than any other eyewitness account, just how terrible the fighting could be in what is too often glibly remembered as America’s “good war.”


Scoop

By Evelyn Waugh,

Book cover of Scoop

Why this book?

A savage counterpoint to Pyle’s brave frontline reporting. The English novelist made two trips to the Ethiopia to cover the war launched by Mussolini in 1935. While in Africa, Waugh complained bitterly about a rival reporter who “never set foot in Abyssinia . . . he sits in his hotel describing an entirely imaginary campaign.” And in this satire, he gave savage voice to this incendiary allegation, describing a group of reporters who spent the bulk of their time far from the front, writing stories based on either misleading briefings by local propaganda chiefs or ingenious inventions that fit the prejudices of their editors and proprietors back home. A hilarious romp.


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