The Rise of a Global Power, the Democratic Revolution at Home 1945-2000
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Shortly after World War II, writer and photographer George R. Stewart, documenting the 3,091-mile length of U.S. Highway 40 from New Jersey to California, noted the astonishing ecological diversity of the country and the striking regional variations in the social landscape and built environment. The roadway, Stewart wrote, “rises from sea-level to more than two miles above it, [while] . . . the annual precipitation varies from sixty to five inches. . . . Steamboat Springs, Colorado has a recorded temperature of fifty-four degrees below zero but on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada foothills you see palms and orange trees flourishing.” The busiest part of U.S. 40, in Delaware, carried an average of 22,688 cars a day, while at the Kansas- Colorado border on average more than three minutes passed with the road empty after each car went by.
When World War II ended, the United States was much more a conglomeration of regions with distinctive forms of economic activity, politics, and culture than it would be when the twentieth century drew to a close. Differences in physical environment and histories of settlement accounted for some of the variations in way of life that Stewart observed during his trip across the country. The New Englanders and middle southerners who settled Oregon set a far more conservative tone than the gold rushers and Scandinavians who went to neighboring Washington, which in the mid-1940s was perhaps the most liberal state in the Union. As states developed differently, disparate sets of laws, institutions, and structures of power molded and protected particular economic, social, and cultural arrangements.
The great size of the United States, its relative political stability, and its extraordinary social dynamism all contributed to its economic and military might, dramatically demonstrated in World War II. Yet even as economic and technological changes drew together various parts of the country, the Constitution, in preserving the importance of the states, had the effect of retarding homogenization. Differences in state economies, social arrangements, and political cultures in turn shaped the national polity.
Mid- twentieth-century portraits of the United States recognized the importance of state and regional variation. Scholarly studies of physical, economic, and human geography typically took the form of surveys that described particularities of each part of the country and compared them to one another. The massive documentation of U.S. history, culture, and built environment undertaken by the Federal Writers’ Project during the 1930s conformed to this model, too. Designed to put unemployed writers to work, the project, reflecting a progressive New Deal nationalism that sought authenticity in regional culture, produced a series of superb guidebooks organized by state, city, and highway. National Geographic Magazine, with a 1946 circulation of one and a quarter million, had a more centrist perspective, but it shared the New Deal’s celebration of local and regional life, regularly featuring state profiles with titles like “Nevada, Desert Treasure House” and “Arkansas Rolls Up Its Sleeves.” For a more literary audience, Erskine Caldwell edited a series of books on regional history and folkways by such accomplished authors as Carey McWilliams, Wallace Stegner, and Meridel Le Sueur. Political studies also often took the form of regional excursions, such as journalist John Gunther’s 1947 best seller, Inside U. S. A.
Recapturing life in the United States at the end of World War II requires looking first separately at the different regions of the country. While Americans shared many national experiences, from presidential elections to Hollywood movies to world wars, their daily experiences were rooted in and bound by particular places, places that as Stewart discovered varied immensely from one another. Regional commonalities shaped political attitudes and cultural inclinations. Conflicts and relationships among the regions helped set the political and social trajectory of the country. Out of many, one.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from American Empire by Joshua Freeman.
Copyright © 2012 by Joshua B. Freeman
Review by Sanford Levinson
The title itself suggests the vast scope of this book, part of a new Penguin History of the United States. In less than 600 pages, Freeman efficiently and illuminatingly describes and analyzes the history of the United States over a fifty-five year period of often remarkable change. The book is divided into four sections with titles that capture Freeman’s central themes: “Pax Americana (1945-1953)”; “The High Tide of Liberal Democracy (1954-1974)”; “The Resurrection of Corporate Capitalism (1975-1989)”; and “The New World Order (1990-2000).” A brief afterword on post-9/11 America follows.
Freeman inevitably touches on the various presidencies throughout this period, but the book does not focus on “political history.” Politics always occurs within wider contexts, both domestic and foreign, and he does a good job of setting them out. Although there is not a traditional table in the book, Freeman does an especially effective job of providing telling statistics.
Thus a writer who traversed the 3,091 miles of then-U.S. 40 shortly after World War II noted that its single busiest stretch, in Delaware, saw an average of 22,688 cars/day; one could wait an average of more than three minutes at the Kansas-Colorado border before seeing a single car go by. To put it mildly, we do not live in that United States anymore, not least because of President Eisenhower’s insistence, partly on grounds of national security, that the United States begin building the modern interstate highway system that relegated U.S. 40 or the legendary Route 66 to the byways of history. As Freeman notes, whatever consequences the highway system might have had for national defense, it fundamentally changed America in many respects, including, most obviously, creating the rise of suburbs from which workers could easily commute to the cities that were steadily losing especially their white populations. The roads also help to explain why by 1969 there was one car for every three Americans, in contrast, to Great Britain’s one car for nine people or Italy’s one for twenty-five. It is no coincidence that On the Road was an iconic novel of the 1950s.
When analyzing the War in Vietnam, which fractured, perhaps irrevocably, the “can-do” spirit of post-War America, Freeman notes that whereas 39 percent of the U.S. armed forces in World War II were combat troops, only 14 percent of those in Vietnam in 1967 were. The remainder were support forces. This helps to explain why a seemingly vastly outnumbered Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces were able to defeat the American forces; in fact, the actual numbers of combatants were closer in number than appeared to be the case.
He is especially interesting on the degree to which Ronald Reagan, who quoted Tom Paine in his inaugural address, was scarcely a typical conservative. Given the scope of the book, no short review can do it justice. However, even readers of an age to remember many of the developments being discussed will profit, let alone younger readers for whom the 1970s and ‘80s, let alone the immediate post-War period, are indeed “history.”
Hardcover Book : 544 pages
Publisher: Viking Penguin/Div Of Penguin Putna ( August 01, 2012 )
Item #: 13-589364
Product Dimensions: 6.125 x 9.25 x 1.36inches
Product Weight: 25.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
Freeman has a very broad topic: post-WW2 American history thru today. Hard to cover so much in one book, but Freeman does a creditable job of touching the key points, as the book is well researched.
Unfortunately Freeman's union-based, liberal slant becomes increasingly strident and wearying as the years progress. His distaste for Reagan is palpable, although it's hard to find any president or public figure that Freeman shows any respect or admiration for. (Except FDR, whose death opens the era.) He continually returns to union issues, while missing technological advancements that are critical to modern America. How can such a book avoid the role of air conditioning to Southern migration, or telecommunications, or the internet? How is the expansion of American culture abroad missed, if the USA is truly an empire? As a New Yorker, his revulsion for the suburbs is as obvious as it is misplaced.
In the end, the book has to be seen as bitterly ironic - as it never really explained what or how an American Empire is. The cover, showing NYC's Chrysler Building (built before the book's timeframe), captures this irony. Perhaps that was Freeman's intent.
The book reasonably covers the era and makes some valid criticisms of modern America, but the author's biases keep it from being a creditable history.
Dont waste your time
Reviewer: James C
If you like your history from a decidedly left-wing point of view, you will be pleased with this book