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June 14, 2005

America: the recent history - Blumenthal, Dallek, Ferguson & Zinn

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Clinton Wars
by Sidney Blumenthal
Pp. 832. London: Viking, 2003 (Penguin, 2004)
Paperback, 9.99

Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President
by Robert Dallek
Pp. 416. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004 (Penguin, 2005)
Paperback, 10.99

Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
by Niall Ferguson
Pp. 416. London: Allen Lane, 2004 (Penguin, 2005)
Paperback, 8.99

A People's History of the United States 1492 - Present 3rd Edition
by Howard Zinn
Pp. 752. London: Longman, 2003
Paperback, 25.99

The war in Iraq and the re-election of President George W. Bush in 2004 has further strengthened the already-strong practice of producing instant books anatomising the USA. In particular it has lent interest to the discussion of America's great-power status. Bush's re-election, more than his original victory in 2000, has also led to considerable foreign interest in the nature and strength of conservative and, in particular, religious action and thought in the USA. There has, indeed, been a somewhat simplistic tendency of ascribing his victory to this religiosity alone.

Authors and publishers have hastened to respond to public interest, their work interleaving the slower currents of scholarly research and publication, much of which eschews the here-and-now because of its emphasis on archival research. At the same time, surprising gaps remain at the popular level. Go into good American bookshops, as I recently did in San Francisco, and ask for an informed geography of modern America, a political geography, a human geography, or an overall geography, and you will be greeted with the familiar response that the geography section is sparse and largely devoted to atlases. Partly as a result, the discussion of regional variations within the USA generally lacks scholarly foundation and is frequently unnuanced.

The best short history for British readers is by an expatriate working in the USA, Philip Jenkins' A History of the United States (2nd edition, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). As, however, this covers the entire history from the 1490s in just over 300 pages, it is not surprising that Jenkins' coverage of recent decades is limited, although his treatment of domestic extremism is instructive. A good introduction to these decades is provided by Dallek's Johnson. This is an abridgement of his lengthy two-volume work Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908-1960 (Oxford University Press, 1991) and Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973 (Oxford University Press, 1998), which rested on massive research, mostly on material in the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas.

Dallek is particularly valuable because his account of Johnson is based on a strong sense of place, and, in particular, on an understanding of the contours of Texas politics and of those of the Senate, the two worlds that Johnson mastered to great effect. There are also many anticipations of the present, not least in the account of the 1964 election, with the clear ideological divide between the two sides. Race, rather than religion, however is a dominant theme in the politics of the book, inviting the question as to how far shifts in America's demographics (in particular the rising percentage of Hispanics and the lessening relative importance of African-Americans) are responsible for changes and how far the politics of race remains important albeit expressed in different ways, with Republican support in the South a consequence of race-based ideas.

Dallek does not really engage with Johnson's libido and that perforce plays a greater role in Blumenthal's book. He presents Clinton as a challenge to the old order in an America whose politics was affected by the end of the Cold War, and sees the Republican response to Clinton as primarily politically motivated. The opposition to Clinton is anatomised with conviction. Unlike Dallek, this is not an account that is strong on local roots. The focus is resolutely metropolitan. For Blumenthal, the Republicans were responsible if the Clinton presidency was a wasted opportunity.

A differently engaged account is that by Howard Zinn. He explicitly seeks to:

awaken a greater consciousness of class conflict, racial injustice, sexual inequality, and national arrogance.
As a consequence, Zinn offers a book that is arresting to those accustomed to the customary narrative. As with most explicitly partisan accounts that seek to right what are perceived as wrongs, there is a degree of tendentiousness that can be wearing, and Zinn's emphases, for example on the (few) Indians who occupied Alcatraz in 1969-70, can be disproportionate, but I am firmly convinced of the value of different perspectives, especially if they contrast with mine, and Zinn is arresting even, or especially, when he seems wrong.

One area in which Zinn is particularly instructive is his crafting of international alongside domestic history. This is also Ferguson's topic. He has a difficult task as he wishes to offer both analysis and prospectus. This is never easy and it is no criticism of Ferguson, a talented writer, to say that he does not really succeed. As prospectus, the call on Americans to bear a greater global burden and to cut social welfare costs accordingly, lacks political awareness and, in its searching for parallel, is somewhat ahistorical. As analysis, there is too much error. For example, the claim that Alfred the Great's England was created in 886 would have been news to those living in the North, the reason why Henry VIII had England proclaimed an empire (judicial independence from the pretensions of the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire) is not appreciated, and so on.

More indicatively, Ferguson's crude reading of the Korean and Vietnam wars, with his prospectus for American victory, is that of a polemicist not a scholar: this is argument by assertion. Lots of Ferguson's remarks also reflect journalese rather than scholarship. The discussion of the relationship between empires and hegemons is weak, while it is worth noting the extent to which comparisons between Britain and the USA are questionable. The book is interesting as an account of a contribution to the modern debate, but the history of the subject can be better approached through Andrew Bacevich's American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (Harvard UP. 2002), which offers some historically-informed criticism. Another historical perspective is provided by John Gaddis's Surprise, Security and the American Experience (Harvard UP, 2004). There is an element of naivety in the latter, but it is useful to see Bush's grand strategy placed:

within the larger context of American history, where the idea of an "empire of liberty" has deep roots.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter.

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We were an empire? So, why no emperors? Are we still an empire? Ah, scrub that, of course we are: OBEs and all that. But, still, why no emperors?

Posted by: Patrick Crozier at June 14, 2005 09:46 PM

Can't quite see the relevance of the above comment - obviously referring to the Niall Ferguson/Colossus boo - but in any case we used to have an Emperor: Queen Victoria was crowned as Empress of India in 1877. After that Edward VII, George V, Edward VII, and George VI - at least until Indian/Pakistani independence in 1947 - were King-Emperors. So to answer your query - the UK did have an Emperor, although an Emperor of India.

Posted by: David at June 15, 2005 10:51 PM
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