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The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism
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From an acclaimed conservative historian and former military officer, a bracing call for a pragmatic confrontation with the nation's problems

The Limits of Power identifies a profound triple crisis facing America: the economy, in remarkable disarray, can no longer be fixed by relying on expansion abroad; the government, transformed by an imperial presidency, is a democracy in form only; U.S. involvement in endless wars, driven by a deep infatuation with military power, has been a catastrophe for the body politic. These pressing problems threaten all of us, Republicans and Democrats. If the nation is to solve its predicament, it will need the revival of a distinctly American approach: the neglected tradition of realism.

Andrew J. Bacevich, uniquely respected across the political spectrum, offers a historical perspective on the illusions that have governed American policy since 1945. The realism he proposes includes respect for power and its limits; sensitivity to unintended consequences; aversion to claims of exceptionalism; skepticism of easy solutions, especially those involving force; and a conviction that the books will have to balance. Only a return to such principles, Bacevich argues, can provide common ground for fixing America’s urgent problems before the damage becomes irreparable.

Customer Reviews:

  • A book every American should read--just like Bacevich's other books
    Although he always describes himself as a conservative, and his authorial voice is tempered, even gentle, over the last decade Andrew Bacevich has emerged as one of the most forceful critics of American foreign policy. This isn't entirely surprising. There are many American traditions--hostility to standing armies and foreign entanglements, for starters--that should make conservatives recoil from the ceaseless drumbeat to increase the Pentagon's budget and identify more 'rogue states' whose existence allegedly threatens all Americans' freedom (of course, among those who monopolize the debate in the traditional media and the political world, conservatives tend to be even more gung ho about war than liberals). Bacevich's point--that, although the Bush administration undoubtedly made things worse, American foreign policy has been on the wrong track for decades, shaped by elite habits of thought and practice and tacit approval by the larger population--is one that those on the left can basically agree with. Bacevich, however, makes his case without the self-righteousness and pedantry that often make the most prominent left voices tiresome and self-ghettoizing.

    Although The Limits of Power is his briefest book (only 182 pages)he makes a number of important points. Bacevich roots today's debacles in the Middle East in the failure of Americans to accept Jimmy Carter's critique of the direction of the country in his speech of July 1979 (the 'malaise' speech). Rather than taking to heart the message that the US should learn to live within its means, regarding energy, the US instead demanded that a way be found to continue on without sacrifices. And so Carter was forced to reverse himself and declare that the Persian Gulf was vital to US interests, and this has been the context in which everything since has unfolded. In the second chapter, Bacevich discusses the ideology of national security, and its four main convictions: that history is an epic struggle between right and wrong, that the United States embodies freedom, that the US ensures freedom's ultimate triumph, and finally, (and I think most significantly) "for the American way of life to endure, freedom must prevail everywhere". These convictions undergird all public debate and the actions of presidents. They also define the huge bureaucracies that have grown up around the cause of 'national security' (the Pentagon, the State Department, CIA, etc). He portrays these bureaucracies as addled and ineffectual at guiding presidents; but the handful of loyalists they often rely on as an alternative prove no better. Various groupings of 'Wise Men' over the last fifty years have constantly overestimated the threats arrayed against the US and the need for military action. The military--at least its top officers--fair no better in Bacevich's handling. Although commanders like Schwartkopf, Clark, Franks, and most recently Petraus are often deified as exemplars of public service and super-competent, in Bacevich's view they are short sited, unable to grasp that the consequences of military action range far beyond the battlefied. Hence, 'trusting the generals' is NOT one of the lessons to be drawn from the Iraq debacle. Bacevich also deflates two other false lessons--that the US must now focus on how to win 'small wars' (why not change the policies that lead to such wars?) and that a return to the draft might reduce the possibility of rushing into an ill-advised adventure such as the Iraq invasion(dream on, the draft is not going to be reinstated). Bacevich instead offers four different lessons: war is unpredictable, the uses of military force are limited, the folly of preventive war, and stop mistaking ideology for strategy. "America doesn't need a bigger army. It needs a smaller... foreign policy... Modesty implies giving up on the illusions of grandeur to which the end of the Cold war and then 9/11 gave rise. It also means reining in the imperial presidents who expect the army to make good on those illusions." As alternatives, Bacevich recommends better energy policies, containment of radical Islam and the abolition of nuclear weapons.

    The key to the importance of Bacevich lies in his ability to forcefully confront reigning cliches about the virtues and magnitude of American power (cliches one is as likely to find in the works of liberal Samantha Power as in those of neoconservative Max Boot) without employing the self-isolating language of the far left. His work does have limits. One is the morality play around energy consumption, which becomes a stand-in for the ways America lives beyond its means. But that tendency has lately manifested itself most vividly in the crisis of debt. Just after the declaration of the Carter doctrine, the US became a debtor nation, jettisoned most of its industries to far away lands in favor of imports, and has never looked back, although in the next five years, it may have to. One might look a little closer at this pattern, and what classes have benefited from it, and how it relates to the trajectory of American power. It might also be useful to look at the shifting world terrain the US is operating on--most notably, Europe and East Asia have progressively gotten stronger economically, while the US has turned more and more to military force--to shed light on US power and its limits. Still, I suppose keeping a book short and readable means focusing on some things and not others. I hope (as does Bacevich, judging from writings since the publication of this book) that the 'change' Obama seeks to bring about includes developing a foreign policy based on a much more realistic appraisal of the US' position in the world and its actual capacities. But I wouldn't count on it....more info
  • The decline of America has been predicted many times before.
    First it was communism and Sputnik. Remember? America was never going to be a great power again. Then it was Korea and Viet Nam. And America was never going to be a great power again. Remember? Then it was the Japanese industrial revolution and we could not make anything anymore, and, of course, America was never going to be a great power again. *sigh* It get's kind of old does it not?

    Reality: At the dawn of the 21st century, there are no genuine competitors to the title of "super power." France, hardly a true ally, even calls the United States a "Hyper Power," (to their great dismay). Most nations have dismantled their militaries with the exception of Great Britain. Canada is a laughing stock. France and Germany can barely meet their UN peacekeeping duties. All of Europe together could not solve the unrest in the Balkan wars, and needed American assitance.

    Economy? We have the highest per capita production of any nation (Opps...someone forgot to tell you that). Our GDP is greater than all of Europe combined. We are far and away the wealthies nation on earth. Even in Iraq, the tide has turned in our favor (you know that because you don't see it on the news anymore. What happened to the nightly coverage?)

    Sadly, there are always ready and anxious readers who slather at the possibility of America's downfall. Remember the book "The Decline and Fall of Great Powers?" About 20 years ago, and the author, John Kennedy (no relation to any political figure), had a great following! Surely America was done for! Many slathered and hoped, but it was not to be. One has to sense the disappointment. What a shame!

    And here we go again. *yawn* What these anti-Americans never get right is that America is the most adaptable country in the world. We re-invent ourselves routinely because we are free to do so. As long as America is free, our people (not the government) will adapt to new realities faster than any other country in the world.

    PS: Someone should tell all the immigrants from all over the world that we are near collapse. They still seem to be under the delusion that America is the last best hope.

    Joseph M. Vottis...more info
  • read this book
    One of the best books on current affairs I have read.Should be a requirement for high school seniors....more info
  • Behind the Curtain of Our Foreign Policy
    I just finished this book and promptly sent an email recommending it to my friends.

    The authors most insightful thoughts were in regard to the demonizing of those around the world who are different than us or treat us in a perceived disrespectful manner. In effect, our government seems bent on portraying anyone who speaks ill of the United States as a mortal threat justifying not only our defense budget, but on occasion an intervention or occupation in the name of "freedom".

    Mr. Bacevich explains plainly we can no longer afford this type of arrogant imperialism. We need to discern real threats from imaginary before we break the bank, and the backs of our military.

    I also thought his observations on our consumer society forcing our hand around the world were intriguing. I agree with the author that if we continue to import oil from the Middle East, and money from China and Japan to fund our deficits, our foreign policy will be largely dictated to us.

    Although some of the concepts in the book were not new, the back story of how we got to our current circumstance, and the author's insights on the implications of our current path were. Great book.
    ...more info
  • A Missed Opportunity
    Red meat for the blue masses. Although all sides are subjected to significant incoming, the heaviest salvos are directed at the red targets. Justified or not, neither side will listen to a perceived bias. To me this was a missed opportunity. ...more info
  • Truth tellers are never late!
    When I was 19 (I'm 40 now)and in college in the West, I had told my girlfriend that from what I had seen on the other side of the World (Africa in this case) there was a direct correlation between how we indulged in our desires and immediate demands, and the chaos seemingly far away that plagued other parts of this one planet. All that to say that on 9-12, I was already yearning for the truths Andrew Bacevich reveals, to be told. It would have been the proper seizing of the great opportunity, that the tragedy of the day before had provided. So when I showed signs of impatience in the following months, my father said:" People are still traumatized!".
    Now, my hope is that trauma has subsided enough for a critical number of Americans to explore unwanted reflections of Self from the mirror. For indeed, Mr. Bacevich has provided a compelling, deep, honest reflection that can serve the emergence of a very noble way to live amongst one another....more info
  • Superb
    Couldn't set this down. Three things make it special:

    1) The biography and credentials of the author: West Point grad; retired Army Colonel; Boston University professor; father of a Lieutenant killed in Iraq.
    2) The compact and lively writing: no point is made without facts and examples, but no point is flogged to death.
    3) The observations about America's culture, politics, history, ideology, that are woven into judgements on the state of our nation.

    The anti-Bush crowd loves this book, but it is more than a rant. Much here to think about....more info
  • Limits of Power - PVM Review
    As a Historian and expert of International Relations, I found Andy Bacevich's book, The Limits of Power, to be very much on target with informative and insightful perspectives on current political and military policies, and how Presidential administrations have more liberally interpreted our Constitution to satisfy and justify their assertive foreign policy agendas to promote the U.S. agenda.

    Also, the author's views of how the U.S. has shifted from a nation of producers to one of conspicuous consumption, which has been a major contributing factor in our current economic demise, were quite interesting.

    Overall, this is an excellent book, easy read, and written in a very unbiased manner. I highly recommend it regardless of your views. ...more info
  • Some insights into problems, no solutions
    In The Limits of Power Professor Andrew J. Bacevich states that the United States is in peril because of three historical developments which have largely occurred since the end of the Second World War: the profligacy (greed and self-interest) of the American people, the concentration of political power into the hands of the president and selected political advisors and the excessive reliance on the military to solve problems. These conditions reached a new height with the Bush administration, but Bacevich demonstrates that that administration was merely following a well-worn path rather than going off in an entirely different direction. Because of the pervasive nature of these problems no president or group of individuals can correct them. He devotes one chapter of this short volume (less than 200 pages) to each problem and concludes that American exceptionalism has come to an end and that there are limits to the usefulness of power.

    The book is certainly timely given the recent economic crisis and presidential election. What Bacevich seems to be saying is that the chickens have come home to roost and Barak Obama will not make much of a difference no matter what his intentions or efforts may be.

    There is much to be said for each of Bacevich's premises. The first may be obvious to most people given the increasing dependence on foreign oil, the ever-rising national debt and budget deficits, as well as the now huge trade imbalance. The American Dream, Bacevich says, is having more and more without a sense of responsibility for who pays the cost. Bacevich states that "the true pivot of contemporary American history lies between two dates: July, 1979 and March, 1983. The first is President Jimmy Carter's "Crisis of Confidence" speech, in which he stated "We are at a turning point in our history." America, Carter said, could go down one of two paths, one of self interest and the other a path of common purpose to restore American values. The talk was not well received, and of course Carter was not re-elected. The second is a speech by then President Ronald Reagan on March 23, 1983 in which Reagan provided his alternative to Carter. This talk is noted for Reagan's "Star Wars" plan, but Bacevich states that two important ideas were imbedded in the talk. The first is that America could only be safe if it achieved something like permanent global military supremacy. The second is that technology could solve all our problems. This talk, Bacevich asserts, provides the basis for future presidential actions, especially those of George W. Bush.

    The second and three points receive the brunt of Bacevich's invective--and the book is full of ad hominum attacks. Bacevich traces the problem of the imperial presidency to the development of "Wise Men," presidential advisors, distinguished citizens who claim special expertise and are immune from voter sanctions. Colonel Edward House, a special advisor to Woodrow Wilson and Dean Acheson and a whole host of members of the "Eastern Establishment" in the administration of FDR are cited as examples for the likes of Karl Rove and Paul Wolfowitz in the Bush administration. Just as critical has been the growth and ever increasing concentration of power in the executive branch and especially in the office of the president. By contrast, the Founding Fathers envisoned a republic vesting most political power in the respective states and a more limited role for the national government.

    But it is on the third point that Bacevich seems to vent most of his invective. As a former colonel in the army perhaps he has a more personal and emotional reaction to America's descent into never ending war. Bacevich faults Rumsfeld and others for believing that America could master war saying that the only sure thing about war is its uncertainty and unintended consequences. General Tommy Franks comes in for special criticism because of statements he makes in his book, American Soldier. Civilians such as Douglas Feith also are excoriated.

    Bacevich also makes numerous references to Reinhold Niebuhr, who taught at Union Theological Seminary and was an influential writer during the period from 1930 to 1960.

    But when it comes to the final chapter Bacevich has little to say beyond the idea that America has gone wrong. Apparently there is little hope of fixing these problems other than realizing that there are limits to everything, even America. All in all the book is interesting and somewhat enlightening reading, but fall far short of providing insight on how to solve the nation's problems. I have given it three stars, but could just as easily give it four. The book is short and the issues are not discussed in great depth. Worth reading for the idea that our current problems are not due just to the machinations of an administration that has perverted Americn values.

    ...more info
  • The State of Our American Democratic Experiment
    "Set thine house in order." With this biblical passage, Andrew Bacevich begins his short but powerful exposition of the three crises facing the American nation today. In Bacevich's view, these problems are of our own making.

    These three crises are economic, political and military, and the underlying reason for all three emergencies "comes from within." The economic crisis is a "crisis of profligacy." Given the choice, Americans have given in to living beyond their means. The gap between requirements and means is ever-expanding, requiring us to look beyond our shores to sustain a frankly unsustainable American way of life. The political crisis of the United States is one of where the government is managed in a wartime-minded national security state whose primary attribute is dysfunction. This is a situation where Congress--more concerned with its reelection than anything else--has willfully abdicated its power to the executive branch, effectively ending the democratic republic.

    The third crisis stems from the first two but is one that has metastasized since the onset of the Global War on Terror, the military crisis. In sum, we have too much war for too few warriors, and those few warriors are led by mediocre generals who no longer understand nor grasp the lost art of strategy. Bacevich scours the military establishment and their widely held belief that Americans have reinvented war and warfare. Nothing about war's nature has changed, he argues, and American leaders are drawing all the wrong lessons from our current conflicts.

    Andrew Bacevich's "Limits of Power" takes an unflinchingly hard look at the state of our American democratic experiment. While his predictions are dire and his economic outlook has largely come to pass, he does offer solutions that won't be easy for the American people: we must learn to live within our means, for one. The "Limits of Power" exposes the vacuous shell of our democracy, and insists that only our citizenry that can fix the mess. But it will not be easy.

    ...more info
  • Amen to Limits
    Excellent study, though I have to take exception on some key points, most notably Mr. Bacevich's take on Reagan and Afghanistan. He writes: "Reagan's policy toward Afghanistan...a seemingly brilliant success that within a decade gave birth to a quagmire...The billions that Reagan spent funneling the Afghan mujahideen were as nothing compared to the $1.2 trillion his administration expended modernizing US military forces." Partly true, but the author allows himself to be carried away into inaccurate history.

    First, it was not Reagan who spent billions funneling the weapons, but a liberal congressman named Charlie Wilson. Reagan merely gave political support to the program. Secondly, it in no way led to a quagmire. It led to the departure of the Soviet Union, which led to anarchy in Afghanistan, which led to the Taliban taking control, which led to O. bin Laden taking up residence in Afghanistan. To suggest that Sept 11 and our subsequent invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is due to Reagan and Wilson's support of people who were defending themselves against Soviet invaders is facile. The 19 hijackers were not successful because of any calisthenics they did in the desert at an al Qaeda camp. They did the bulk of their training and planning in Germany and the US.

    More to the point, our involvement today is not and need not be a quagmire. And this speaks of a missing theme, the absence of which I noticed often in reading Bacevich's otherwise very good book. Our military is not a police force. Our military is not a relief organization. Our military is not a nation-building agency. Our military is the best in the world at attacking and defending against other militaries. Saddam and his army are vanquished. The Taliban were run out of power a long time ago. It's time for us to go. Yes, bin Laden escaped, but that is no reason for us to stay. Hunting him now would seem to be a good task for the CIA, working together with the Pakistani intelligence service. Similarly, how much better it would have been for the US military to leave Iraq immediately after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Yes, much had to be rebuilt, but why not let the Iraqis do it among themselves in 2004 instead of 2011? Why not support Hamid Karzi in the way we supported the mujahideen, ie., from a safe distance?

    Bacevich correctly identifies the solution in his title: our power is great, but there are limits. The problem is political megalomania which sees no limits to what our military can accomplish. The story has been remarkably similar in this respect in Korea and Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan, but people like Lyndon Johnson and GW Bush continually hearken back to Japan and Germany as the model. If Barak Obama is as astute as he appears, he'll follow the lead of President Eisenhower in Korea, and not President Nixon in Vietnam.

    ...more info
  • An absolute must read!
    Col. Bacevich has written a tour de force that speaks the truth to power. Regardless your political leanings (I'm a moderate Democrat and military veteran), all American citizens should read this book. It will open your eyes....more info
  • "Limits of Power
    I have found this book very readable and
    researched. It was a book I did not want to put
    down. I think the information should be known
    and read by everybody who is interested in the US.
    BIll FORST...more info
  • Make it a requirement
    Please read this book before it is too late. It is our duty to educate ourselves, don't miss this one....more info
  • Just a rant....
    This book was disappointing. Just a rant with various anecdotes that are drawn on to support the author's positions. I expected worthwhile argument in what could have been a valuable contribution. ...more info
  • Sharp rebuke of citizens, politicians, and generals (3.5 *s)
    This somewhat tedious and not entirely consistent polemic, written by a retired colonel, excoriates the United States, especially the imperial Bush II presidency, for its zeal in imposing American economic and political ideals on noncompliant parts of the world through high-tech military means, which can supposedly be accomplished quickly and precisely with few complications. Of course, recent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate the complete fatuity of those martial actions. But the author also contends that our hyper-consumeristic society, in which freedom has morphed into self-indulgence, virtually requires that the world satisfy our appetites for oil, credit, etc, and basically gives tacit approval of political and military aggressiveness to secure the world for our needs.

    The US certainly had some international military presence before WWII, but the author contends that the expansion of the executive branch to include national security bodies, precipitated by the rise of the Russians and Chinese Communists, was transforming to the nature of US governance, especially in a willingness to intercede internationally. The secretiveness of the NSC, the CIA, the Pentagon, etc and the marginalization of Congress permitted policy positions that were frankly based on paranoid delusions of the extent of Communistic power and capabilities, best exemplified by Paul Nitze's NSC 68 report in 1950, which to this day still has immense influence among neo-conservatives. Parallel to the development of these formal structures has been the reliance of presidents since JFK on a select group of Wise Men or advisors, who operate independently of accountability or need to comport with reality. Many global misadventures lie at their feet.

    The author, in more than a little axe-grinding, suggests that recent top military commanders have been mostly incompetent. There is also a fuzzy debate about whether generals have been excessively constrained by civilian tampering - by the Wise Men. One can wonder if - and it is a big if - the US had been militarily successful in Iraq and Afghanistan, would this book have been written.

    While the author dates the exaggeration of our enemy's capabilities back to Nitze, its current manifestation is best demonstrated by neo-conservative Paul Wolfowitz, the principal advocate of preemptive war. The author is not entirely consistent in his claims that the US foreign policy has been characterized mostly by pragmatism before Bush II, but now is ideologically driven, given the continuity of a national security apparatus prone to distorted views. What he does make clear is that the high tech capability of our military has made its use become very appealing since the Clinton years, the thinking being that a problematic foreign regime can be carefully excised through precision bombing without collateral civilian damage. The miscalculations in Kosovo alone should have given the Bush II administration some pause.

    The author's views on freedom are extremely limited. There has always been the notion that material prosperity is an element of freedom, but the run-up of huge personal debts and national trade imbalances of recent years has created dependencies being played out globally. However, in a democracy, freedom has to be gauged on the ability or even desire of citizens to have a voice in political affairs. But in the national security state, citizens are propagandized rather than allowed to provide input and oversight. The author makes no call for citizen empowerment. In fact, American reliance on an all volunteer army, in the author's eyes, calls into question American interest in civic affairs.

    This book is one of several written by the author over the last ten years that criticizes the US turn to establishing an empire through military means. The author is certainly correct that it is not possible financially or from a manpower standpoint to dominate the world militarily, not to mention the philosophical problems. He invokes the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr throughout the book to condemn American arrogance and sanctimony in its thinking that empire can be established almost benignly. He points out that war always has unintended and devastating consequences, yet we seem to be at a point where we cannot stop ourselves on our self-destructive path. There are limits to power.

    As far as solutions to counteract our national hubris, or belief in American exceptionalism, the author can suggest only indirect measures such as eliminating nuclear weapons, achieving independence from foreign oil, and controlling global warming. But there are no suggestions as to how to start the process. He is definitely not a democrat (little `d'), so he does not call for citizen empowerment to put us on the correct path. In fact, he criticizes the American belief that electing candidates that espouse change can work, when there is no underlying movement by voters to alter their ways of life. The forces for continuity are subtle and significant. Basically the book is more or less a continuation of the author's, shall we say, need to scold the US, the imperial Presidency and especially the military, for its hubris in attempting to dominate the world. It's doubtful that this latest book breaks much new ground and some may find the curmudgeonly tone a bit off putting.
    ...more info
  • Bacevich
    This book is a profound analysis of the shenanigans the outgoing administration played on the American public. As well as an honest criticism of our own shortcomings as citizens when we let policy makers lead us astray....more info
  • Every American should read this
    This is one of the finest books I have read. All Americans should understand the importance of the views Bracevich presents to our future as a nation. We cannot continue the way we are. This book does not provide a solution to the problems we face but rather an understanding. Without that we can never develop the solutions. Absolutely a must read!!!

    I am buying this for those I love and respect....more info
  • Powerful Book!
    Fascinating book - and I'm not generally into politics. A must-read for all U.S. leaders. I only hope President Elect Obama has read it!...more info
  • Thought provoking
    An excellent and thought provoking analysis of how America got to the present low point. Highly recommended!...more info
  • Every American should read this book!
    An insightful look at the direction of the US political & military machine. A short and quick read yet doesn't skimp on detail. ...more info
  • Concise Patriotic Book: No Jingoism Here
    Andrew Baceich is a West Point graduate, who teaches at Boston University. He has a straight forward, lucid style that comes form a militarily informed perspective, but guided by history, and in this case, personal tragedy. Our book club just handled another of his books, "The Rise of American Militarism" when this book was released, and Bill Moyers interviewed Mr Bacevich on public television. Unlike the Pentagon-aware "news analysts" common to both Fox news and CNN, Bacevich knows, teaches and enlightens recent history, but refuses to peddle Pentagon propaganda or toe an ideologic line, right or left. He shines a light on American Exceptionalism, as a doctrine naturally following Manifest Destiny. He pin-points when we transformed from a "creditor nation to a debtor nation; a nation of producers to a nation of consumers living beyond our means and needs. He revisits the Presidencies from Kennedy to Bush II without the ideologic slant of either Fox News or MSNBC, no hagiography or ax-grinding here, simple truths historically validated - he's a straight shooter with dead aim at the unlikely and oft missed political target ...the truth. He slaps Congress with the indictment that they have abandoned their "Constitutional mandate" to check the growing, unchecked power of the White House. He clearly outlines some courageous styands by some presdients held in ignominy, and shows the clay feet of others that are widely adored, but in fact spoke one way telling the people what they wanted to hear, and acted another. The book is dedicated to his son, who was killed in Iraq, a fact not given much discussion in his hour long interview with Bill Moyers on Public television, but even this military hardened veteran could not hide the emotion of a child lost in an inglorious war. This is a masterful view of America present and past, with blunders in the military revealed, gutting the concept of pre-emptive war, including the memorable quote from Norman Mailer: "Trying to solve a problem with war is like trying to cure the clap by going to a whore house." This is quick, punchy, clever read for non-fiction readers that want to clarify their minds about history and where the USA is going. This is an enjoyable, erudite, thoughtful book. ...more info