23 March 2014
Who, living in the United States of 1929, could have foreseen how the country would develop over the next sixteen years? This book gives a survey of the dramatic transformations the United States underwent in these sixteen years, transformations that no one foresaw.
It does so by focussing principally on social, political and economic developments during this time and I learned a lot of interesting things from reading it. Among them, Hoover, the President whose fate it was to preside over the beginnings of the Great Depression, has his reputation restored somewhat by this book. He was not the blinkered lasses-faire lame duck President of the stereotype. He was well aware of the nature of the economic calamity engulfing his county and much of what he did in response was to anticipate what Roosevelt was going to do; if he tarried, it was because contemporaries struggled to comprehend the magnitude of what was happening, and disagreed as the causes and proper remedy of the Great Depression.
The book also offers a fair-minded summary of the achievements and shortcomings of the New Deal. Many of its ambitions were not realised. But during these years, many of the harsher features of the previous seven decades of capitalist expansion were ameliorated. Sustained economic growth was not achieved but, intriguingly, and with echoes of contemporary doubts about the necessity and sustainability of economic growth, the New Deal was not predicated on restoring growth as such. FDR ignored Keynes' advice to bolster government deficits to restore growth (this was of course to happen during the war, with phenomenal results). The object was stabilisation, and of ensuring greater economic and social security. It was assumed that the era of growth was over. Overall, the New Deal was too variegated and heterodox to be reduced to labels like `liberal fascism' - Jonah Goldberg in his book of the same name makes tendentious and specious comparisons to make this label stick. Military expenditures for example in the New Deal's heyday in the mid-1930s barely put flesh on the bones of a skeletal US military, not remotely comparable to Hitler's profligate military expansion during this time.
The social history of these years and the impact of both the Great Depression and War on blacks and women again challenges some stereotypes: Rosie the Riveter, for example, was not typical of her sex; many American women did not join the production effort during the Second World War because they did not want to. The seeds of the Civil Rights era were sown during these years, partially due to the social changes of the 1930s, accelerated by war in the 1940s, which stimulated the rise of a more assertive black activism, especially in the latter years of the Second World War.
The chapters on the Second World War describe some of the battles but without too much detail. They also show the US was remarkably unprepared for World War 2, and, for the first 18 months or so of America's participation in the conflict, Britain was the senior partner, not the United States. Mobilisation was at first a chaotic and haphazard affair. But of course, once the US galvinised itself, its productive capacities knocked spots of its opponents. The prodigious feats of production accomplished in the USA during WWII makes it all the more remarkable that anyone felt, just a few years before, that the era of economic growth and expansion was over.
And of course, presiding over most of this, is the character of Roosevelt himself, a garrulous and loquacious politician, but who gave away few clues about the nature of his character and motivation. His coaxing of his country away from isolationism must serve as one of his key accomplishments (Americans were perhaps more open to persuasion to abandon their insularity than has been portrayed in many accounts). In FDR's eys, Hitler, not the Japanese militarists, was the greater of the two threats, and there is no doubt that the ideal war FDR would have wanted to have fought would have been a one-front war against Germany, with Japan held off on the back-burner, to be dealt with later. His political arts - necessary evasions and half-truths in order to purchase a greater good - are well brought here.
The book is also well-written but occasionally prone to florid, pretentious flourishes which mean I would knock off a half a star, for the effect it has on readability. But I learned a lot, mostly enjoyed it, and appreciated the epic sweep of a narrative that traces with consummate skill the transformation of the US from 1929 to 1945. Short of going back in a time machine and experiencing it for oneself, this book is the next best thing. So it deserves five stars.