on 12 June 2015
As others have pointed out, Hugh Brogan is a historian who is not shy of expressing his personal opinions; his history of the USA is written from a markedly liberal (in the American sense) position, although this is not necessarily the same as a leftist (in the European sense) position, especially if one equates leftism with socialism.
Brogan’s great heroes of American history are George Washington, James Madison (as principal author of the Constitution rather than as President), Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, at least insofar as his domestic “New Deal” policies are concerned. He is less impressed by Roosevelt’s foreign policy, criticising him for doing too little to alert Americans to the Nazi menace in the thirties and for misreading Stalin’s intentions towards the end of the war. Some other revered figures, however, do not fare so well. Andrew Jackson comes across as something of a demagogue, and even Thomas Jefferson does not escape criticism. This is partly because of his hypocrisy on the slavery issue; Brogan acidly remarks that the Civil War was fought between those who followed Jefferson’s principles and those who followed his practice. Perhaps more importantly, however, Brogan sees Jefferson’s political legacy as something of a long-term liability for the country he helped to found. His vision of a republic of small farmers began to look very outdated after America’s Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, and his preference for limited government, combined with his authority as a Founding Father, was used to support some very conservative interpretations of the Constitution. Brogan shows how the Supreme Court did its best to obstruct the New Deal, acting ostensibly on admirably Jeffersonian constitutional grounds but (according to many Democrats) on the basis of an ill-concealed Republican Party agenda. (The Chief Justice during these years, Charles Hughes, was a former Republican presidential candidate, and his predecessor, William Taft, had been a former Republican President).
There are a few areas which I would have liked to have seen covered more fully, notably the development of the other European colonial empires (Dutch, French and Spanish) in North America and the relationships between the United States and the Native American peoples, especially during America’s westward expansion during the nineteenth century. I would also have liked to see more about the development of American culture. Literature, for example, is only mentioned to make some political point- “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to illustrate the slavery issue, or “The Grapes of Wrath” in the context of the Depression- and music, the visual arts and the cinema hardly at all, but doubtless Brogan felt that to expand the book in this way would make it too long and unwieldy.
I noted a few errors; the word “normalcy”, for example, was not a neologism coined by Warren Harding, but dates back to the mid nineteenth century, some seventy years before Harding’s Presidency. Banastre Tarleton was not an American-born Loyalist- he was a Liverpudlian by birth- although he commanded a regiment of Loyalists. The expression “OK” more likely derives from “orl korrect”, a jocular misspelling of “all correct”, than from an African language. Slavery was not legally abolished in Delaware until the Civil War, although there were in fact very few slaves in the state. These errors, however, are generally few in number and minor in importance.
A more serious criticism would be that in some areas Brogan’s personal opinions come to the fore so strongly that his account can seem partisan and unbalanced. This is particularly true of those chapters dealing with Vietnam and the Cold War in general, which contain some odd statements, such as the one that the French originally acquired their empire in Indo-China “to irritate the British and the Germans”. Many of Brogan’s arguments seem inconsistent with those advanced earlier in the book; he criticises Roosevelt for being too trusting of Stalin but criticises Roosevelt’s successors for being too suspicious of Soviet intentions. He earlier described the “Copperheads” who opposed the Civil War, and even those New Englanders who opposed the absurd War of 1812, as “near treasonable”; I think that we can safely assume that he would not approve of the use of this adjective, with or without its qualifying adverb, to describe those who opposed American involvement in Vietnam. Much of the problem arises from the fact that his analysis of the Cold War is too one-sided. He closely scrutinises the policies and motives of successive US administrations, but does not subject the Soviets or other Communist powers to the same scrutiny- it is notable that neither Khrushchev nor Brezhnev is ever mentioned- and as a result he is never really able to justify his argument that American suspicions of the Soviet Union were largely unfounded. (Many people, and not just in America itself, would have argued that they were entirely justified).
Against these criticisms of the book must be set my appreciation of its good qualities. Brogan writes with great fluency in an elegant prose style. His book is generally very informative; I particularly liked the sections dealing with slavery, the Civil War and its aftermath. He shows how slavery was not just a “peculiar institution” confined to the Old South but dominated national politics, throughout much of the nineteenth century. American policies, both foreign and domestic, were often born out of a need to reconcile the demands of the free north and the slave south; the war with Mexico in 1846, for example, was largely undertaken at the behest of the “Slave Power” who wanted to expand slavery into the South-West. The chapter about Reconstruction well illustrates the tragic dilemma which faced the nation in these years; African-Americans were now legally free, but they were far from being equal citizens and (given the intransigence of Southern whites) there seemed no way of making them so short of the imposition of semi-permanent military rule throughout the South.
Brogan is also very enlightening about that seemingly uneventful period in the late nineteenth century, when the Presidency was held by a succession of nonentities but which nevertheless saw the country transformed into a leading political and economic world power, and about the succeeding reformist “Progressive Era” of McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Although this is primarily a political rather than an economic history, he is always very good at explaining the economic factors underlying political and social developments.
The author has achieved the difficult feat of compressing the whole of American history, from the beginning of English settlement in the Americas up until the Presidency of Gerald Ford and the Bicentennial of 1976, into a single volume of less than 700 pages. (My edition also has a brief epilogue, taking the story into the 1980s, but this adds little to the original text). Perhaps Brogan’s most valuable service, although he is British himself, is his ability to enter into the American mind-set and to explain the American view of their country’s history to British readers like myself.