June/July/Aug 2012

In a Big Country

An account of America's postwar rise to power leaves out at least half the story

Chris Bray


The presidential election of 1964 unfolds across a few colorless pages in Joshua B. Freeman’s American Empire, pitting a candidate who embraced “expansive state action” to “improve the quality of life” against a guy who opposed “the expanded functions the state had taken on during the previous three decades.” Circling back later, when the story has moved on to 1966, Freeman notes that some actor in California is still hanging around. Behold the elaborate flatness of this sentence: “Reagan, a one-time New Deal Democrat who over the years had moved to the right, came to national attention as a political figure in 1964 with a speech supporting Barry Goldwater, which used populist language to counterpoise individual freedom to government action.” You can just feel a political movement being born, can’t you? At about the same time, we learn, racially integrated performances on southern concert stages were “generating considerable tension.”

Freeman’s story of post–World War II American history mostly lies on the page just like this, fast asleep. Some of the problem can be blamed on the publisher, which promises that the books in its History of the United States series will come in at “approximately 500 pages each.” Books in a competing series, the Oxford History of the United States, tend to run to nearly twice that length, heavily footnoted and very deliberately constructed as interpretations of complex evidence that produces scholarly disagreement. Trapped in tighter confines, Freeman produces a journalistic narrative without contested meanings: legislative greatest hits, presidential personalities, cultural snapshot, big protest, next chapter.

Lots of things happen, smashed together in a hurried recitation of fact. Chuck Berry becomes famous on page 191, Rachel Carson warns the world about pesticides on page 192, and three civil rights activists are murdered in Mississippi on page 193, where Students for a Democratic Society issues the Port Huron Statement before it’s time to turn the page. Events rush by as in a “Today in History” box at the bottom of a newspaper column, items stranded in a list. Charging through, Freeman pronounces the significance of change in notably dubious ways. Sometimes he presents conclusions flatly rather than as contestable interpretations: “Sex played a more prominent role in marriage than in the past,” for example. When was this? “In the decades after World War II,” all of them blending together, the 1950s and 1970s alike, as the importance of marital sex becomes an overheated blur across the decades.

As much as Freeman is already trapped within the constraints of a book series promising a clear and straightforward story about the past, his own narrative choices are often depressingly narrow. Though the book has moments of remarkable nuance and complexity, its contests are mostly binary—labor and business, Left and Right—and tend to play out between unpeopled constructs, as in a “climactic battle” over labor rights waged by “businesses”: “Advised by lawyers and consultants specializing in defeating unions, they delayed representation elections, pressured voters to work against unionization, fired activists, and threatened to close their plants rather than accept collective bargaining.” Businesses, consultants, lawyers: “they.” It becomes impossible to read this sort of thing without yearning for even a few sentences of storytelling, for a named lawyer hired by a named businessman at a certain company to take a closely described action against named people who occupy a particular time and place, and who get to say some specific thing in response. Instead, the forces of X move against the forces of Y, represented at best by the names of organizations, as “business bested labor on the issue both sides saw as paramount.” Both sides: There are precisely two.

Yet even as he rigidly aligns competing force against competing force, Freeman remarkably chooses to privilege personal motivations over structural pressures. Bad effects come from bad actors, who are motivated by bad intent. In the 1970s, the Federal Reserve “deliberately set out to crash the economy and in the process create a sea of human misery in the service of creating price stability.” And Freeman’s Federal Reserve system isn’t an institution with a history, a culture, and a political context. It’s a guy—Paul Volcker—who suddenly “made stopping inflation his main goal, even if it took inducing a recession to achieve it.” That’s it: An ogre in a suit unaccountably decided to create a sea of misery, just for the sake of some price-stability stuff. Does price instability create any human misery?

Here’s a similar test of Freeman’s narrative generosity. The origins of the Twenty-Second Amendment are at least a little bit complicated, as Americans had sustained a desultory debate over the appropriate duration of a president’s power since the founding of the republic. There’s a modest and very dull body of scholarship on the history of the two-term restriction, and no one who has studied the question thinks the thing just popped up like a mushroom in 1947. In Freeman’s telling, though, presidents are limited to two full terms in office entirely because snarling right-wingers in Congress were “kicking the corpse of their dead tormentor, FDR.” A noted labor historian, writing from the left, Freeman is unable to find anything in the political right but vaudevillian malice.

The untenable starkness of Freeman’s binary historical vision becomes particularly clear as he pronounces upon the contest between Left and Right, which represents, in his account, progress through state action and regress through a “devaluation of government.” When the conveyor belt of history moves forward, it brings more government, which is good; when the conveyor belt runs backward, it reverses history, shrinks government, and takes progress back into the warehouse. Remember that this perennially positive account of domestic state prerogative takes place in a book titled American Empire.

There are two stories here that don’t fit together. In the first, the statesmen who run Freeman’s cold-war empire are self-hypnotized, half blind, trapped by ideological reflex and the dull logic of power. They are, in anthropologist James Scott’s phrase, seeing like a state. Here they are, acting upon the world: “Leading American officials, imprisoned by their anticommunism, indifferent to the daily realities in distant lands, and overconfident about their ability to ultimately shape acceptable outcomes, rarely thought much about the long-term consequences.” Back at home, the national security state maneuvered to contain domestic dissent that questioned its premises. The CIA engaged in “domestic spying against war critics” under orders from President Lyndon Baines Johnson, with the FBI similarly “targeting antiwar and left-wing groups” with efforts that “often went beyond surveillance to disruption, harassment, and entrapment.” State power is predatory, self-serving, destructive, blandly cruel. It conquers and represses.

Meanwhile, in the other story, government is overcoming the atavistic hostility of the political right so it can help people. Johnson won the 1964 election, and his victory “opened a rare window of liberal opportunity” that led to a moment in which “postwar liberalism achieved its greatest accomplishments.” These achievements scroll out in lists: “The Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the National Trails Act followed,” or, “In 1964 and 1965 Congress also passed a series of laws deepening federal involvement with education, culture, and the arts.” The conveyor belt kicks into high gear, and lots of progress rolls out. Even when Richard Nixon becomes president, “the federal government remained largely wedded to liberal domestic policies.” It’s all good news, as “Nixon did not shy away from the idea of expansive government” and “did not hesitate to vastly expand the role of the federal government in shaping local educational practices in the name of civil rights.”

Somehow these are all the same people, secretly bombing Cambodia while they also shape local educational practices so society can make progress through liberal domestic policies. Power is for overseas; benevolence is for home. The two spheres never so much as pass one another in the street. But the logic of liberal domestic policy and the rationale undergirding empire and the national security state keep bleeding together, as when Freeman describes Johnson ghoulishly defending the war in Vietnam “in explicitly New Deal terms, as a prerequisite for schools, dams, electrification, economic development, and improved medical care in Southeast Asia.”

While bombs are held to improve Vietnamese medical care, the Great Society back home never quite manages to produce its advertised product. “Ironically,” Freeman writes, describing something that probably isn’t ironic, the War on Poverty was “meant to deploy innovative approaches to eradicate poverty,” but instead resulted in policy measures that “only sought to alleviate the plight of the poor (and lessen the social threat they might cause).” I love the parentheses—they allow Freeman to assert, as a rushed afterthought, that state power achieves social control while being packaged as benevolence.

The failure of Freeman’s project is probably woven into the decision to attempt it. The dissonance in the collision between fact and frame is the product of a gifted and distinguished historian trying to judge the events of his own lifetime. No one writing now about the War of 1812, for example, feels his identity to be wrapped up in his personal anger over who supported the Hartford Convention. The events are safely distant, the personalities removed and abstracted. My own suspicion is that most historians looking back on our moment from a distance will regard the contest between the American Left, so-called, and the apparent American Right as a show without much meaning: two competing narratives in the same purpose, justifying and manifesting the expansion of late-imperial state power and the extractive schemes of a markedly degenerate political class. But it seems to be too early for that story just yet.

Chris Bray is a writer in Los Angeles.

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