The best golden oldies books for understanding money and power in the United States

Thomas Ferguson Author Of Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems
By Thomas Ferguson

The Books I Picked & Why

The Politicos, 1865-1896

By Matthew Josephson

Book cover of The Politicos, 1865-1896

Why this book?

This is a sequel to the author’s famous The Robber Barons. His detailed primary research into campaigns and negotiations between politicians and their backers illuminates many subjects that later historians have too quickly passed over. Because he knew so much about the economy, Josephson also zeros in again and again on the driving forces that later work often dissolves into bromides about “concentrated wealth” and such. Josephson shows you the people and the institutions actually at work.


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The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916

By Gabriel Kolko

Book cover of The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916

Why this book?

Readers looking to the past for inspiration about the possibilities of antitrust and progressive movements right now are being served a very weak and distorted account of what the most successful trust busters like Teddy Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson were actually trying to do and what they really accomplished. Kolko was a leader in exploiting primary sources that upended traditional accounts of who did what to whom.

So-called “New Brandeis” antitrust champions in particular overlook the realities of trust busting in American history and have much to learn from this masterpiece. 


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The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State 1900-1918

By James Weinstein

Book cover of The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State 1900-1918

Why this book?

Weinstein’s, like Kolko’s book above, is a vital corrective to much starry-eyed contemporary writing about Progressivism and the real nature of movements supporting the “vital center.” His accounts of how major American businesses supported early twentieth-century reform movements, hoping to head off popular upsurges while also accomplishing changes they thought they needed, are indispensable in our time. Modern readers are not used to these sorts of things and so they have a hard time seeing through promises of reforms that are anything but what they appear to be. Like Kolko’s, Weinstein’s work is greatly strengthened by his study of primary sources. 


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The American Way of Empire: How America Won a World--But Lost Her Way

By James Kurth

Book cover of The American Way of Empire: How America Won a World--But Lost Her Way

Why this book?

This work is different from previous books suggested here. It is only recently published, but it presents revised versions of essays that sometimes date back a decade or more. Superbly written with great clarity, its strong points are the detail and care with which it spells out how economic factors are woven into American foreign policy and national security strategies.

The author’s subtle understanding of how nuclear weapons dilemmas, historical choices, industrial structures, and bureaucratic competition combine in actual policymaking puts most literature on international relations to shame. In a multi-polar world that is becoming ever more dangerous and in which the specter of nuclear war is again rising, Kurth’s discussions of imperial overextension, the limits of hegemony by one great power, and related topics are extraordinarily timely. Its accounts of major international crises and national security policy point up the shallowness of most American foreign policy discussions and the scary perils that decision-makers keep sleepwalking into.


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The Chairman: John J. McCloy & the Making of the American Establishment

By Kai Bird

Book cover of The Chairman: John J. McCloy & the Making of the American Establishment

Why this book?

Younger Americans have no direct experience of the Cold War, McCarthyism, or the nineteen sixties. They rarely hear anyone suggest that the government is properly responsible for maintaining full employment. They also have little idea of what the American establishment was when Pax Americana shaped the world. This study conveys that world very well indeed. It benefits once again from a vast amount of primary research. Its depiction of how banks, lawyers, and American multinationals wielded power at the zenith of the “American Century” has few, if any rivals. It vividly shows how someone very few Americans ever heard of rose to the pinnacle of power, shaping not only the U.S., but western Europe (especially Germany), the Mideast, and many other parts of the world. The writing moves briskly along and is especially good at sketching complex situations that are intrinsically tough to convey concretely.


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