Steven Ujifusa, A Man and His Ship: America’s Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the S.S. United States. I should have gotten around to reading this book earlier, since the author is the son of Grant Ujifusa, who came up with the idea of The Almanac of American Politics and recruited me as a co-author more than 40 years ago. For that I remain eternally grateful, and perhaps for that reason I hesitated before picking up A Man and His Ship. If so, it’s a case of delayed gratification, for this is an absolutely splendid book in every way.
It’s the story of William Francis Gibbs (1886-1967), the naval architect who designed many ships, from North Atlantic ocean liners to the World War II Liberty ship transports, to cruise ships. Steven Ujifusa writes clearly and gracefully and he seems to have total command of the technical terms; he does a fine job of bringing the elusive Gibbs to life; and in the process of telling his story presents a fascinating picture of high finance centered in New York in the interwar and postwar years. And you even get a detailed description, together with illustrations, of the interior decoration of United States and other ocean liners.
Readers will also learn something about crony capitalism. The federal government paid more than half the cost of building S.S. United States, on the theory that the military would need liners to transport troops, as it had in World Wars I and II. Government did not foresee that mass numbers of troops could more readily be transported in aircraft, and if you mentally compare the size of the Queen Mary, which carried 16,000 troops per voyage in World War II, with that of the contemporaneous DC-3, each one of which could carry about 50, you can see why.
Gibbs was similarly shortsighted on this. He had dreamed and schemed to build a liner much like United States from 1916, when he got launched into the ship architecture business with backing from J. P. Morgan, Jr., until 1952, when United States first sailed. He didn’t imagine that jet aircrafts would carry more trans-Atlantic passengers than ocean liners less than 10 years later.
Similarly, railroad executives couldn’t understand why a business would fly from New York to Chicago when you could take the overnight Twentieth Century Limited, enjoy an excellent meal and awake refreshed in a comfortable compartment. But jets were a lot quieter and more comfortable than propeller aircraft and time is money. Gibbs didn’t anticipate the vast expansion of the cruise ship business, either; his business model was to provide luxury accommodation in ships that were fast and of high aesthetic quality. In his brief description of today’s cruise ships, Steven Ujifusa seems to echo what would surely have been Gibbs’s scorn for such craft.
Nick Adams, The American Boomerang: How the World’s Greatest “Turnaround” Nation Will Do It Again. There’s a grand tradition, starting with Alexis de Tocqueville, of foreign writers telling Americans more about their country than most Americans know or understand. Nick Adams, a young Australian writer, continues this tradition in this book about how the United States can rise again from its current doldrums.
This is a book to read in conjunction with two excellent recent books on Anglosphere exceptionalism, James Bennett and Michael Lotus’s America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century—Why America’s Greatest Days Are Yet to Come and Daniel Hannan’s Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World.
J. H. Elliott, History in the Making. Why read the memoir of a British historian of Spain? First, because it’s a pleasure to read. J. H. Elliott is a graceful writer, a man full of learning and wisdom, a scholar capable of appreciating and celebrating scholars of varying beliefs and methods. Elliott charted his own course in the profession, eschewing the Marxism that was fashionable when he was a young man, declining to follow the advice of the great annaliste Fernand Braudel, concentrating on Spain and its empire which had not been a fashionable area of research for Anglophone historians.
Elliott’s oeuvre is rich and I would recommend especially The Count-Duke of Olivares: Statesman in an Age of Decline (1986) and Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 (2007, the year when the author turned 76).