Insights into significant events of the twentieth century are provided in this memoir by Paul Ignatius, a former secretary of the Navy and past president of The Washington Post who participated in many of the events described. The Great Depression of the 1930s, World War II, the Cold War, the Korean War, and Vietnam are recalled from the author's perspectives, first as a teenager in the 1930s, then as a naval officer in the 1940s, a defense department consultant in the 1950s, and a Pentagon official for eight years in the 1960s. There are new details on Robert McNamara's managerial innovations, the growth of the Army under President Kennedy, and the enormous effort to provide construction, supplies, and ammunition for the Vietnam War. The book includes vivid personal recollections of McNamara, Clark Clifford, Cyrus Vance, General Creighton Abrams, Admiral Thomas Moorer, and many others. There are high moments when Medals of Honor are awarded, low moments when the USS Pueblo is captured by the North Koreans, and perplexing moments over whether to praise or damn Admiral Hyman Rickover.
The Pentagon Papers case, the illegal strike of the air traffic controllers and efforts to deregulate the airlines, the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, and president Carter's attempt to lessen U.S. dependence on middle-eastern oil are among the many other critical events covered in the book. Ignatius also offers intimate glimpses of his family life, including the period when his college-aged children were totally opposed to the Vietnam War, and his Armenian heritage, complete with memories of his grandfather's poems of freedom that forced him to leave his ancestral home. In a final chapter, the author looks back upon a full life and identifies the civil rights movement and efforts to gain equality for women as among those things of lasting importance.