Saturday, August 14, 2010

Levine & Papasotiriou's "America Since 1945: The American Moment"

This is a good introductory textbook on US history in the late 20th century. I think the fact that it is written by academics in Europe give it a nice perspective on the US. One, Levine, is an American teaching at Copenhagen and the other is a Greek teaching in Athens. They've produced a solid, well-pace text. I especially enjoy the pairing of chapters. Each period is written from two perspectives. Papasotiriou gives the political history in one chapter. Then Levine covers the cultural history. This one-two punch gives the book a good feel. I guess it is the old pedological maxim: tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, tell it, then tell 'em what you told 'em. It is sort of like running a truck over a body twice to make sure the victim is really, really dead. This one-two punch gives the students two chances to get the "feel" for an era.

This textbook isn't extraordinary. It doesn't stand out from the crowd. It doesn't have a dazzling new interpretation. It is good workmanlike historical presentation. But it is worth reading.

Here's an example from early in the book where they look at the anti-communist hysteria:
Thus the Red Scare of the 1940s and early 1950s occurred after the neutralization of the wartime Soviet intelligence networks. Undoubtedly, the revelations about Soviet spying in public testimonies by Bentley and Chambers, as well as information leaked by the FBI through a circle of anticommunist supporters, contributed to the paranoid climate of theRed Scare. Yet the lamentable wave of mass hysteria that swept America had deeper roots that were unrelated to actual Soviet spying. A Red Scare had gripped America after World War I as well, when there was no evidence of Soviet spying.

The Red Scare was a prime manifestation of the tyranny of the majority that Tocqueville had warned about in 1835, when he declared that 'in America the majority raises formidable barriers around liberty of opinion'. In The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), Louis Hartz analyzed American political culture from this Tocquevillian perspective; he argued that the absence of a feudal past in America resulted in the absence not only of a reactionary, anti-liberal conservatism on the right, but also of a countervailing socialist and Marxist tradition on the left. Hence Lockean liberalism had come to dominate American ideology without challenge, becoming a national creed that breeds intolerance of other ideologies. This argument certainly explains the naming of committees of 'un-American activities', as if being a commmunist was un-American. According to Hartz, the dominant liberal Americanism became particularly insecure regarding 'un-American creeds in periods when American society came out of its traditional isolation and engaged in greater contact with the Old World and its suspect traditions. This accounts for the Red Scares that followed both world wars.


The Red Scare culminated in the period 1949-53, when the Cold War caused heightened insecurity in American society. In September 1949 Truman announced that the Soviet Union had tested its first atom bomb, raising for the first time the specter of mass destruction raining upon American cities. In October 1949 Mao gained control over continental China, launching the misleading but domestically potent debate about 'who lost China'. In June 1950 the Cold War turned hot with the war in Korea. During the height of the Red Scare in the early 1950s, Congress undertook 85 separate red-baiting investigations. Moreover, in 1950 it passed the severe McCarran Internal Security Act, overriding Truman's veto by 286 against 48 in the House and 57 against 10 in the Senate. These votes and the prominent role of Democratic Sentor Pat McCarran demonstrate that the Red Scare was a bipartisan affair. Yet with McCarthy's engagement, it acquired a vicious partisan aspect.


McCarthy's demagogic effectiveness derived from his right-wing populism that targeted the liberal New Deal elite. McCarthy appealed to the less educated and poorer strata in American society that were more apt to endorse simplistic conspiracy theories and to resent the upper strata -- in this case not the rich (who are targets of left-wing populism) but the well-educated liberal elite that had been in government for two decades. His populism was already evident in his 9 February 1950 speech in Whelling, West Virginia, that launched his witch-hunting career, in which he declared:
It is not the less fortunate, or members of minority groups who have been selling this nation out, but rather those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has to offer -- the finest homes, the finest college educations, and the finest jobs in the government that we can give.

After McCathy's fall, a new climate of moderation emerged in American politics, facilitating a bipartisan consensus between Eisenhower and congressional Democrats. Liberals such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. complained that this was an era of stagnation, yet the bipartisan consensus did produce at least one major federal initiative, the Interstate Highways Act of 1956 that aimed at extending the existing highway network across all regions of the United States. In time, this act contributed to the long-term decline in economic disparities between regions by stimulating interregional trade and creating more integrated national labor and capital markets. It also contributed over the long run to the growing homogeneity of the United States in terms of political culture. Such developments in turn made the South's sytem of racial segregation less tenable.
Hopefully that longish quote from the book gives you a feel for how this text hits all the key themes with a straightforward style jam-packed with facts and implications. It easily lets a reader see the bigger picture and understand how themes run through American history. It is more than a compendium of dates and names. It gives the underlying story with an analysis that helps the reader begin to see the significance of historial events. This is a good solid 300 page history of the US. It is well worth reading.

OK... one more excerpt to give you a taste:
A group of new conservative activists began to plot the nomination of a right-wing candidate for president two-and-half years before the Republican National Converntion of 1964. They persuaded Arizona's Senator Barry Goldwater to run for the presidency, even though he had never expressed such an ambition. Goldwater had emerged as the leading conservative politician in the late 1950s, who was also the most outspoken; for example, he supported a voluntary social security system, abolition of the graduated income tax and privitization of the Tennessee Valley Authority, views that in effect meant a repeal of the New Deal.

A bitter struggle for the nomination pitted Goldwater against Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York, the leading politician of the moderate Northeastern Republican establishment. But the moderate Republicans were unable to stop the conservative assault. Thus for the first time since the 1930s the Republicans nominated a candidate from the conservative wing of the party. Goldwater defiantly refused to conciliate his moderate opponents and remained firm in his uncompromising conservative politics. At the end of his nomination speech eh answered critics who had called him an extremist with these memorable words: 'Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!' Nixon visibly refused to join in the applause.
If you have forgotten your history -- or are too young to know much about American politics before the George Bush era -- this is an excellent book to get you oriented and understand the politics and culture of the US over the last 65 years.

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