Reviewed in the United States on May 7, 2019
Jared Diamond, a former-physiologist-turned-geographer, has already penned a perennial bestseller in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) by writing on world history. With his new book, Upheaval (available everywhere May 7), it looks like he might have done it again. If Guns, Germs, and Steel is about the birth and growth of human societies and his 2011 book Collapse is about the death or near-death of those societies, Upheaval is about a turning point, a mid-life crisis, in a nation that determines its course for the future.
Diamond uses a couple of structures in Upheaval that serve the reader well. First, he compares national crises to individual crises. He employs a crisis therapy framework that consists of 12 factors that determine how well an individual will cope with a crisis, then adapts it to analyze how nations respond to crises throughout history. I was skeptical of this tactic at first, as it seemed that nations’ responses to crisis would not be comparable to individual experiences, especially his comparison of an individual’s ego strength to, at the societal level, nationalism (a theme to which we will return later). However, the framework as a whole makes a lot of sense, there seems to be a lot of truth to his analysis, and it served as a helpful organizational device throughout the book.
A second structure was Diamond’s strategy in using nations in which he has personal experience. Each of the seven nations he explores (Finland, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Germany, Australia, and the United States) are nations in which he has lived for a significant amount of time, made friends, and been enmeshed in the culture. I questioned this too at first because I feared that Diamond would be relying too much on personal experience, but this was not the case. He relied heavily on historical facts and figures, adding in personal anecdotes for a little flourish when helpful.
Given these two structures, I don’t think it is technically correct to call Upheaval a history book as much as, I don’t know, a practical exploration in social studies? If that sounds denigrating, I don’t mean it in any way, and I hope Diamond would agree with me. It is not straightforward history, but instead uses historical examples to explore how nations have dealt with crisis and how they can successfully do so again in the future. The goal is broader than a standard history book.
As a world history teacher, however, I truly enjoyed the history of Diamond’s selected nations is relayed in an approachable style that fully explains and informs. I thought the chapter on the Meiji Restoration in Japan was terrific, I feel like I gained a lot of perspective on post-War Germany, modern Australia, Indonesia, and the Pinochet dictatorship of Chile, and I learned more about Finnish history than I thought I would ever know. I literally just included every one of the selected nations except the United States in that sentence without trying to, if that tells you how balanced the book proves itself to be. I couldn’t even leave one out when writing about how good enjoyable the history is.
In the final part of the book, Diamond spends time analyzing modern, unsolved crises in Japan, the United States, and the world as whole. I think he made good arguments here whether or not I agree with them, so I enjoyed it significantly if also a little bit less than the historical analyses. I would compare this section a little with Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, with a slightly favorable edge to Rosling because of his style.
I can’t speak to how similar Diamond’s analyses are in this book as compared to his others because I haven’t read them, but as a world history teacher I have both heard a lot about and read a lot of excerpts from Guns, Germs, and Steel. It so easily blends popular and academic audiences that it can be found on the Pulitzer Prize list and in a large share of AP World History syllabi while also being available in tiny airport bookstores around the country (the definition of a super-popular book, IMO). Guns, Germs, and Steel is actually rather polarizing in the world history community, the chief criticism coming from those who claim Diamond veers into what is called “geographic determinism”, or the idea that a nation’s geography determines its fate in history. Taken to its extreme, this idea is harmful and can reinforce prejudicial ideas about race. Having not read Guns, I cannot speak to that specific criticism. However, I found no whiff of geographic determinism (beyond Diamond’s fascinating descriptions of nations’ real geographic advantages and disadvantages) in Upheaval.
The one criticism I have, however, is in Diamond’s analysis of nationalism. Nationalism is one of his predictive factors as to whether a nation will successfully navigate a crisis, and I won’t argue with that because he makes several good points and gives many historical examples throughout the book. However, there is no larger examination of the excesses of nationalism. Even in Indonesia, which he describes as having maybe the strongest national identity of the group, he doesn’t draw any connection from this national identity to the genocide perpetrated by those who were forging it. I am not anti-nationalist, but I think a book developing these themes must connect them together. I noticed the disparity in a passage from the chapter on Meiji Japan (again, a chapter worth the price of the book by itself). Diamond points out the paradox in Japan’s successful military expansion under the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and their blundering, unsuccessful military expansion starting in 1937 and continuing through World War II. How could the same nation make so many mistakes when they had proved so capable less than a century earlier? Diamond writes:
"There are numerous reasons: the successful war against Russia, disillusionment with the Treaty of Versailles, the collapse of Japan’s export-led economic growth in 1929, and others. But one additional reason is especially relevant to this book: a difference between Meiji-Era Japan and the Japan of the 1930’s and 1940’s, in knowledge and capacity for honest self-appraisal on the part of Japanese leaders. In the Meiji Era many Japanese, including leaders of Japan’s armed forces, had made visits abroad. They thereby obtained detailed first-hand knowledge of China, the U.S., Germany, and Russia and their armies and navies. They could make an honest appraisal of Japan’s strength compared to the strengths of those other countries. Then, Japan attacked only when it could be confident of success. In contrast, in the 1930’s the Japanese army on the Asian mainland was commanded by young hothead officers who didn’t have experience abroad (unless in Nazi Germany), and who didn’t obey orders from experienced Japanese leaders in Tokyo. Those young hotheads didn’t know first-hand the industrial and military strength of the U.S. and of Japan’s other prospective opponents. They didn’t understand American psychology, and they considered the U.S. a nation of shopkeepers who wouldn’t fight."
There is nothing wrong with this assessment. Diamond is right about the reasons he lists at the beginning of the passage. I think he leans a little bit too heavily on the “young hotheads” argument, but there is an underlying cause that he is missing. Why had Japanese leaders closed themselves off and not been overseas except for Nazi Germany? Why did they suddenly lack the capacity for “honest self appraisal”? Why did they abandon the strategy of attacking “only when it could be confident of success”? In short, I and a lot of other historians blame the excesses of nationalism. This is connected to the abuses of Koreans and Chinese that Diamond mentions elsewhere in the book, and the connection between nationalism and imperialism is clear, especially in Japan’s case. Japan’s brand of nationalism specifically, which caught fire during the Meiji Restoration, was about intense devotion to the state. This directly led to some of the bad decisions in 1937 and especially in 1945, when intense devotion to the cause of Japanese imperialism caused Japanese leaders to abandon all reason and jump into a war with Britain, Australia, the Soviet Union, China, Korea, and the United States with no hope of defeating all of them at once. This brand of nationalism was also connected to their “no surrender” policy that culminated in the American decision to drop two atomic bombs in order to avoid a costly but almost certainly successful invasion of the Japanese mainland. (By the way, most belligerent nations would have surrendered after the firebombing of Tokyo or at least after one atomic bomb. But not Japan.) This is even more effectively observed in Hiroo Onoda, a 2nd lieutenant in the Japanese army who continued fighting in the Philippines for almost 30 years until finally emerging from the jungle in 1974. He thought the war was still going the entire time. For more on this story and its connection with the Japanese psyche in the years leading up to and during World War II, I highly recommend the most recent couple of episodes of the podcast Hardcore History (already 8 hours on the subject with more to come) named “Supernova in the East”. Dan Carlin, the host, makes the point I am making here, that Japanese nationalism cannot be divorced from the bad decisions of the 1930s and 40s. Diamond never sways into criticism of nationalism, on the other hand, and I think it was a big miss. Nevertheless, it did not detract from my enjoyment of the Meiji Restoration chapter.
If I had to make a prediction, I think Jared Diamond’s Upheaval will be a hit. It might not get as massive a reception as Guns, Germs, and Steel, but it is so well-written and approachable that it is bound to spread by word of mouth. He has also chosen some fascinating moments from modern history that anyone not well-versed in world history probably hasn’t heard of. Even those like me who teach world history probably still haven’t read about these events deeply. But they deserve discussion and analysis, and Diamond provides that. Whether you know someone in Finland or Indonesia, Chile or Australia, Germany or Japan, or whether you just want to know more about how nations cope with crisis, this book is for you.
I received this book as an eARC courtesy of Little, Brown and Company and NetGalley, but my opinions are my own.