Post-Postwar: On Joshua Freeman’s American Empire

Post-Postwar: On Joshua Freeman’s American Empire

As new scholarship has challenged the standard view of postwar American history, the need for a new narrative has become obvious. Joshua Freeman’s recent survey of the nation since 1945 is comprehensive in scope, but fails to develop a new way of understanding the recent past.

Potsdam, 1945: Clement Attlee, Harry Truman, and Joseph Stalin (U.S. National Archives)

American Empire, 1945-2000:
The Rise of a Global Power, the Democratic Revolution at Home

by Joshua Freeman
Viking, 2012, 512 pp.

Joshua Freeman’s American Empire is the second volume in Penguin’s History of the United States, after Alan Taylor’s American Colonies. If this publication schedule suggests a lack of chronological discipline, it makes for a pleasing set of bookends: the nation that emerged from imperialism became an empire of its own, as diverse and difficult to characterize as the colonies from which it developed. But the history of the modern United States, unlike the history of the colonial era, is not over. We do not know how or why it ends. We do not even know when it ends.

Until the 1980s it made sense to teach courses titled “The History of the United States Since 1945.” Normally, lecturers and professors taught such twentieth-century surveys as the history of “what happened to the New Deal?” In classrooms around the country, students heard that the limited program of social insurance adopted under Franklin Roosevelt expanded under presidents of both parties until it began to encompass the civil rights of African Americans in the mid-1960s. And then, or perhaps a little later, the program for social democracy became something called the “rights revolution”: not a series of rights at all, but a set of querulous demands that the nation could not afford to recognize. Once women, Hispanics, and gays began asking recognition for their particular rights, middle (also known as “straight, white, male”) America took a step back toward what textbooks call “The Age of Limits.” Suddenly the expansions of the New Deal became expensive and Americans had to learn to live more modestly (or so their white, southern president told them in the 1970s).

In this story, foreign relations mattered inasmuch as the Cold War was also terribly expensive. It was clearly the defense budget that turned the world’s longstanding creditor into its biggest debtor sometime in the later Reagan administration. If there was an epigraph (not to say an epitaph) for this period of American history that lasted from about 1945 to 1990, it was Lyndon Johnson’s insistence that what the United States had done for the Tennessee River Valley, it could do for the Mekong: “Hell, we’re the richest country in the world, the most powerful. We can do it all.” Except, apparently, Americans could not do it all. We were actually world-historically terrible at the business of empire.

As the era of the extended New Deal receded into the past, this interpretation of postwar U.S. history—and, indeed, the very concept of “postwar U.S. history”—began to account for less of what historians thought they knew. The rise of conservatism in the 1980s came to seem less like a recognition of the natural or political limits to the expansion of the New Deal and more like a project all its own.

It became clear that the rights revolution, insofar as it encompassed the claims for expressive or cultural freedoms, was not stopped by the rise of conservatism. Nor was the rise of conservatism stopped by the recognition of limits to the New Deal. The Clinton and Obama administrations could repudiate liberals and liberalism, fetter themselves to Wall Street’s idea of fiscal responsibility, and turn the Democratic Party into (as Clinton himself complained) “Eisenhower Republicans,” but it would not mollify the Republicans at all. Indeed, as the Democrats moved right, the Republicans moved too, exploring new frontiers in American political conviction.

Researchers also began to treat modern conservativism in greater depth. Routed by Roosevelt in 1932, Republicans had scrambled to reorganize afresh, creating networks of businessmen, thinkers, and activists, all working to undercut, and then to overturn, the New Deal and all it represented. The rightward turn did not simply result from liberal overstretch. It happened because conservatives worked hard to make it happen. Obviously, the narrative of postwar political history needed rewriting.

Joshua Freeman’s book closely follows the traditional narrative of postwar history. First liberalism dominates the political landscape, then conservatism. The shift comes in the mid-1960s, and it happens because the New Deal has gone too far, spent too much, tried to encompass changes too great for its principal supporters—white working-class men—to comprehend.

The book begins with a social and economic survey of the nation as the Second World War drew to a close—a country still regionally diverse, each distinct section still bearing the marks of its individual colonial history. Race divided the nation, too, as did class. Labor mattered enough for the Republicans to make its diminution a priority during their brief period of congressional majority. They succeeded with the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, curtailing the rights and the power that unions had won under Roosevelt.

The Truman administration took two positions in the late 1940s that shaped the remainder of the century. On foreign policy, the administration took a firm position against the Soviets: Truman declared that the United States would stand with “free peoples” around the world. In secret, the administration developed a plan to increase military spending and taxation to ensure that the United States could meet the USSR with equal or superior force. And on the domestic front, the administration moved toward the support of African American civil rights, as Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces, and the Democrats adopted a civil rights plank in their 1948 platform.

Despite the occasional Republican like Robert Taft, who expressed disapproval of permanent military mobilization, the shift to Cold War became a bipartisan project, from which any politician and, indeed, minor public figure, dissented at his peril. By contrast, civil rights became the source of increasingly bitter division and party realignment. Freeman is at his best in discussing the transformation of Americans from an urban people, living together willy-nilly and compelled to recognize themselves in their neighbor, to a suburban people, isolated and indifferent in their anomie to everything except the quantity of their possessions. The eleven-page section on suburbia and supersizing in the decades around 2000 constitutes a neat and thoughtful little essay on its own. Freeman does similarly well whenever the subject turns to migrations, movements, and other themes of social history.

But despite its length, the book gives Freeman too little scope for insightful passages like these. One suspects that some editor imposed a requirement for comprehensive coverage. Too often Freeman’s prose reads as if he were writing with a list of Important Events in front of him, feeling the need to mention them all, however perfunctorily. He speeds by, offering probably true but wholly insubstantial descriptions. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was “so meager that it had little practical impact.” The National Endowment for the Arts was “the most important federal engagement with culture since the New Deal.” Absent further detail, there seems little point in such assertions save ensuring that these worthy acts are duly included.

Analysis sometimes gets similarly scant space. The topic sentence of a paragraph on the assassination of John Kennedy reads, “Things kept getting weirder after Kennedy died.” Too true, yet one could wish for keener adumbration of what, if anything, the odd elements of the murder amount to. The stagflation of the 1970s gets this explanation: “The coincidence of a downward business cycle with structural changes in international capitalism threw business and policymakers into confusion.” This reader is likewise confused and wishes the author had written more concretely about the rise in oil prices and the turns in Federal Reserve policy.

A book called American Empire might have said more about how the nature and consequences of American imperialism compare to those of earlier hegemonies. But while the United States’s wars get suitable shrift, their impact receives inadequate assessment. Consider how Freeman describes the aftermath of the Vietnam War: “… no further communist advances occurred in Asia. Vietnam itself entered a long period of suffering as it coped with the physical and social devastation of the war, unassisted by the United States, which reneged on its promise of postwar reconstruction aid. A communist leadership that had been brilliant at war proved incompetent at peace, leaving the country one of the poorest in the world.” These sentences themselves seem at war. Freeman notes that in retrospect the war had little purpose, at least in terms of preventing the collapse of dominoes. He reminds us how much the United States did to damage Vietnam,and how little to repair it. Then he attributes the nation’s poverty to communist incompetence—a real phenomenon, to be sure, but one that the nation might have done more to overcome absent all the bombs, napalm, and Agent Orange.

The lack of particular emphasis or consequence means Freeman’s story arrives at an awkward moment near its conclusion. An account of the American empire since 1945 ought to make sure that the attacks of September 11, 2001 do not wholly surprise the reader. And Freeman does say that “the 9/11 attacks came out of history, not from outside it.” But he has not structured his narrative to earn this point. Consistent with the spirit of comprehensive coverage, U.S. involvement with the Arab world is certainly mentioned. But Freeman does nothing to give it greater weight or portent than, say, the Carter-era expansion of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act.

Freeman’s publisher, Viking, has done little to aid his efforts. No period of U.S. history is better documented, quantified, or surveyed than this one, yet the book has no photographs, charts, or maps.

The events of the early twenty-first century pose a challenge to historians. Writing in the 1990s, it must have been tempting to succumb to Francis Fukuyama’s heady suggestion that true conflict in history had ended. The great arguments were over, fascism and communism were defeated, and all that remained was technocratic tinkering to arrive at the best balance of economic liberalism and democracy. Accounts of the world since 1945 have often focused on that history, which did seem definitively to end. But since the millennium, the rise of the right and of often-violent resistance to capitalism and democracy—both of which have antecedents going back to the Roosevelt era—require us to tell a different story about the last seventy years. Freeman has written a genuinely synthetic and comprehensive work, but he has forgone the opportunity to craft a new narrative.

Eric Rauchway is professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and the author of five books. He is currently writing a sixth, The Money-Makers: The Invention of Prosperity, from Bullion to Bretton Woods.

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: