8 books offer tips on diplomatic history

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Jan. 25 2013 6:45 p.m. MST

With so many international hot spots and potential diplomatic landmines in the world today, sometimes it can be confusing for the layman to try to sort it all out. Why did the United States support this action? Why did a war nearly break out over that issue? Can our current policies avoid conflict in the future, or bring prosperity to ourselves and our allies?

One key in better understanding diplomacy today is to study how nations interacted in the past. There are many great books out there that take a look at the history of diplomacy, and here is a list of eight of the best.

• "Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World,” by Margaret MacMillan (Random House, $20), is a wonderful exploration of the Paris Peace Conference that followed World War I. This 2003 work looks closely at U.S. President Woodrow Wilson as he naively but sincerely sought to set up a new international order that would make war obsolete. The book illustrates the problems that existed between Wilson and his allies, notably Georges Clemenceau of France and David Lloyd George of Britain. Wilson wanted a magnanimous peace for Germany, while his allies insisted on harsh peace terms. MacMillan sharply describes the process of compromise that eventually wore down Wilson's vision and created a system that virtually guaranteed the outbreak of another war 20 years later.

• MacMillan also authored 2006's “Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World” (Random House, $17). Here, MacMillan sheds light on the Cold War as U.S. President Richard Nixon visited Communist China after 20 years of diplomatic isolation from the United States. For all of his folly as president, MacMillan shows Nixon's strengths as a diplomat as he and his National Security Adviser (and later Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger developed their policy of triangular diplomacy, essentially playing the Soviet Union and China off against each other. Nixon's meeting with Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong and Prime Minister Chou En-lai was both awkward and exciting, and a moment absolutely crucial in shaping America's current relationship with China.

• “Jefferson's Great Gamble: The Remarkable Story of Jefferson, Napoleon, and the Men behind the Louisiana Purchase” (Sourcebooks, $19.99) is a captivating look at one of America's greatest moments of diplomacy. Written by Charles Cerami, this 2003 book explores just what it took for the United States to purchase the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803. This is a great look at the early American republic and president struggling with constitutional issues over the acquisition of territory. More than that, Cerami's book takes us into the Paris drawing rooms where the deal was hammered out by future president James Monroe and French foreign minister Charles Talleyrand.

• 1989's “The Deadly Embrace: Hitler, Stalin, and the Nazi-Soviet Pact, 1939-1941” (W.W. Norton, $35) takes a deep look at one of the strangest periods in World War II. Authors Anthony Read and David Fisher brilliantly explain how two totalitarian states with hostile and completely antithetical systems could set aside their differences for a time and work together. Particularly interesting are the portraits of the major players in the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Beyond Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, the authors illuminate the motivations, talents and flaws of the foreign ministers — the Communist Vyacheslav Molotov and the Nazi Joachim von Ribbentrop. The book also wonderfully depicts the unraveling of this marriage of convenience, as Hitler became dead set upon war with the Soviet Union in 1941.

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