7 Novels that Make U.S. Foreign Policy Feel Real

From the Iran-Contra Affair to the Vietnam War, these books make clear the human impact of American intervention abroad

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Photo of the Vietnam War from Wikimedia

My grandmother, who came to North America following the brutally thwarted 1956 Hungarian uprising, had a thick accent (think something along the lines of a Mrs. Dracula) and a line she would say when asked about escaping the Iron Curtain: “People think I was fleeing Communism. I was fleeing my mother-in-law.”

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I stole that line for my first novel, Russian Winter, and not just for the laughs. It spoke to something deeply true about the interplay between politics and family life, between foreign and domestic relations. After all, the arrival of the Russian Soviets in Hungary and their appropriation of formerly private housing meant entire families now squeezed into single rooms—ratcheting up my grandmother’s desperation to ditch her husband’s mother.

This intersection between the political and the personal has long interested me, and while I have no great desire to peruse a treatise on foreign policy, I’ll gobble up any good novel that vividly brings to life the ways U.S. interventions abroad—whether in the form of helpful rescue or troublesome meddling—affect individual lives and interpersonal relationships. I’ll also wager that for many of us a novel can be just as effective a way of gaining a sense of a government’s machinations (whether overt or behind the scenes) on foreign soil. To have this political and historical information delivered through the intrigue, suspense, rising action, climax, and denouement of a satisfying novel, whether as the focus of the plot or as background to the storyline, whether obliquely or in nuanced detail—these are the spoonsful of sugar that help the medicine go down. And that is precisely what these worthwhile novels achieve.

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

Burkina Faso Cold War: American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

In this elegantly engaging novel, a Reagan-era FBI agent gains a new perspective on herself and her country when she takes part in the CIA’s covert efforts to unseat Burkina Faso’s popular Marxist leader. Smoothly ranging back and forth in time, the narrative at first builds slowly yet thoughtfully, lending equal weight to the titular protagonist’s family background (via Martinique, Harlem, and Queens) and her assignment to “get close to” Burkina Faso’s president on his visit to New York. When, midway through the book, the assignment requires her to travel to Burkina Faso, this entertaining read, with smart plot developments that stay true to the complexities of relationships both romantic and diplomatic, becomes a page-turner concerning the lies we tell others and ourselves—regarding the true nature of ourselves and of our homelands. 

Insurrecto by Gina Apostol

Philippine-American War: Insurrecto by Gina Apostol

This vigorously postmodern take on the consequences of colonialism centers on “a blip in the Philippine-American War (which is a blip in the Spanish-American War, which is a blip in latter-day outbreaks of imperial hysteria in southeast Asian wars, which are a blip in the spiral of human aggression in the livid days of this dying planet, and so on).” Specifically, in 1901, locals on the island of Samar ambushed occupying American forces, killing 40-something U.S. soldiers, for which the U.S. retaliated by killing thousands of Filipinos. In Apostol’s brilliant and roguishly comic novel—set in current times—a young white American filmmaker who lost her father following a childhood stint in Manila returns to the Philippines to make a movie based on the Balangiga massacre, with the help of a local translator who decides to improve the script. Told from multiple female perspectives, including a delightfully opinionated appendix mixing fiction and fact, this unique work raises smart questions about why it matters who tells a story.

Legacy by James A. Michener

The Iran-Contra Affair: Legacy by James A. Michener

Michener’s great strengths were his ability to understand historical sweep and cultural context while dramatizing these elements at the personal level; at his best, his characters are always living human lives in the midst of big moments, so that we care about what happens to them as they struggle to survive, build homes, fight wars, make money, fall in love, and adapt to change. Legacy is not the typical 1000-page Michener novel but, rather, a novella springing from an army major’s involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal. Preparing to defend himself before Congress, the protagonist, who justifies his actions through his fierce patriotism and fervent anti-Communism, is advised by his lawyer to cite his venerable Virginia ancestors as evidence of his moral character. As he brushes up on their histories, we learn about a framer of the constitution, a slaveholder freeing his slaves, a suffragist, and others—including a bigoted grandfather who, when told FDR has died, replies, “Just saying that to make me feel good on my birthday.” Each of these vignettes returns in some way to a discussion of the U.S. Constitution and its amendments—the actual stealth history lesson in this fleet multigenerational tale.  

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

Criminalization of Unaccompanied Migrant Children: Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

What could have been a flat portrayal of a hot-button issue from the headlines comes poignantly to life in Luiselli’s hands. Based on a real life road-trip she took in 2014 with her husband and children to the southwestern border (about which she also wrote a non-fiction account, Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions), this moving novel presents richly imagined passages about the often perilous journeys taken by unaccompanied children crossing from Central America into the U.S. in search of asylum. Luiselli dramatizes not just the suffering of child refugees but their bravery and ingenuity—to the degree that the reader experiences their eventual surrender to Border Patrol, their mass deportations back to the countries they have fled, and their unexplained disappearances as gut-wrenching. In a brilliant move, Luiselli uses the narrator’s 10-year old son and a 5-year old daughter riding in the back of the car to celebrate the wonder, curiosity, intelligence and wisdom of childhood. Because we get to know these two children so well, the specter of their loss feels all the more real and devastating. 

The Iraq War: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

This beautiful, heartbreaking—and often piercingly funny—novel of the Iraq war takes place over the few brief days that Billy, a 19-year-old army Specialist and newly minted war hero (thanks to Fox News), returns home to Texas with his troop to participate in the Superbowl halftime show before heading back to duty in Iraq. In Fountain’s hands, the random absurdities of war meet the crassness of the television industry, creating a compact, propulsive, and absolutely believable story in which every character feels fully real. From Billy’s complex feelings for his sister to his love for a sergeant killed in action, the tug of his emotions and growing confusion of his heart and mind feel absolutely true—perhaps mirroring that of his country.

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U.S. Foreign Intervention: The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shocochis

The power of this expansive, mesmerizing work is its unraveling of deep historical wounds and scars—both personal and political—that are then replayed in different countries and contexts (WWII Balkans, Cold War Turkey, 1980s Haiti) generations later. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, this magnum opus is divided into five books and deftly brings to full light the sticky, extensive web of U.S foreign policy decisions, revealing the way those strands stretch through time and space, with ramifications that never allow the characters to break free. Troublingly, there is some narrative lingering on the sexual traumas enacted on the main female character that at times can feel voyeuristic. But the collective traumas and betrayals experienced by the protagonists expose their hidden lives in ways that resonate hauntingly to tell a larger story of America’s pre-9/11 coming of age. 

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The Vietnam War: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

America’s war in Vietnam and the resulting exodus of Vietnamese refugees to the U.S. gets a masterful satirical treatment in this compelling saga of a young Vietnamese double-agent who settles in L.A. The virtuoso confessional voice and razor-sharp insights keep us turning the pages, along with a plot somewhere between a mystery and thriller. A scathingly comic section concerning the filming of a would-be Apocalypse Now is also a mordant send-up of racial stereotyping that will make you think hard about the persistence of typecasting into the present. And though the final pages might not be fully in keeping with the book’s satirical bent, this Pulitzer prize-winner will leave you moved.

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