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on 14 May 2014
This book promises so much but is let down by the author's assumption that readers all share his detailed knowledge of the subject. He seems to have missed the point that most readers will have picked up his book because they don't know the subject in great detail, hence random references, throwing in multiple characters without explanation and simply missing out important background all serve to frustrate the reader. Huge tracts of US history are skirted over in a few sentences, the development of the modern 2 political parties is not explained clearly and the whole book is a mass of enormous and elaborate sentences. These overly long sentences translate into massive paragraphs which destroys any flow and continuity and makes enjoyment very difficult. After the first chapter this book is best described as a chore and makes for painful reading. There seems to have been no proper editing as many of the chapters do not logically link with the others, the timeframes for the chapters are ignored and key issues are not made clear before jumping somewhere else. There must be a better "definitive" history of the USA.
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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.
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on 27 October 2017
I think this is the best single-volume history of the USA. It suffers a little bit from what John Keay referred to as a train pulling into the platform (fast to begin and slow at the end), and I think he could've covered the 18th century a bit more comprehensively, given that the USA is essentially an 18th century state.

His English is sublime, and made me smile, and even laugh on occasion, not because it is funny, but because the style is so wonderfully elegant.

If you want to know why America is what it is, read this. If you want a general introduction to US history, read this (although it is much too packed with fact and analysis really to be a mere introduction!)
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on 7 September 2009
I did not read History at University and had embarassingly little knowledge of American history. I found this work useful and engaging, and a good background to have when reading American literature and appreciating other forms of American culture.

The writing is clear. Events are well summarised, characters presented with subtlety and the significance of social change is discussed in detail. The author raises pertinant questions but does not let the commentary reach an exhausting level of detail. I feel not only that I have learnt many facts but also gained some actual insight into American History.

The work is slightly on the `academic' side but I was very frustrated that the publishers did not think it useful to include any maps nor even a glossary of terms or a good annotated bibliography. Shame on them.

Another reservation is the handling of the war periods: I would have liked a clearer depiction of the timelines and the decisive moments of the various conflicts.

To summarise: this was a good read and a useful basis on which to build. There are not that many histories of the USA .... this book only goes as far as R. Regan and I now need to find a history of 'contemporary' USA to complete the picture.
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on 30 July 2017
Absolutely Amazing Book and so interesting though it does get a bit boring after the civil rights act. And very neutrally written too which doesn't gloss over the less than proud parts of the US. Recommended Book!
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on 28 January 2011
Brogan identifies two major themes for this history: the role of slavery in determining the moral direction of the US and the drive West to secure its economic progress. In reality, this is a political history of the USA, and much of Brogan's time is spent analysing the psychology of its presidents, and rating them in modish fashion against their response to the circumstances they were in. Thus, Jefferson's idealism looks self-interested, Wilson's looks anachronistic and Carter's naive. The flaws of the personalities (and neither Lincoln nor FDR come off unscathed) are offered as subtle for evidence for the kind of democracy that Brogan likes and thinks he has found in America. Beyond papal infallibility or royal birthright, the issues for a republic come down to the fundamental inadequacy to the task of governing of even the most capable. Thus, Washington's Farewell address becomes a bulwark against political despotism for all time.

This is just as well, given Brogan's account of how corruption, neglect and prejudice have determined the direction of the nation far more effectively than the idealism or morality that most American would prefer to believe have guided its destiny. Some episodes stand out: the excellent account of how the bust of the economic system in 1929 came about (and the policy responses for its consequences) provide useful lessons for the challenges of our own time. The rationale for establishing the Republic in the first place as a tax revolt rather than a political revolution continues to resonate powerfully in American social and economic life, as a disdain for contributions to the nation's finances whilst still expecting elected representatives to deal with problems this often creates. In all, this is a well organised narrative and unflinching account of the last superpower, especially interesting given the precipice on which it now seems poised.
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on 24 January 2002
Prof. Brogan can little have suspected when he wrote the first edition in 1983, or updated it in 1995, that the USA would be thrust centre-stage quite so dramatically as it was on the morning of September 11th 2001. Yet, anyone seeking explanations of the American response since, or Americans seeking reasons for the apparent mixed feelings which the rest of the world harbours about their country will find many answers in this wide-ranging and comprehensive study
The book covers the period from the voyage of Columbus to nearly the present day. It is densely packed with fact which illustrates political, economic, and social progress of the USA. The period up to and including the Civil war is dealt with dutifully but unenthusiastically, and the period from '83 to '95 is slightly glib, but the strength of the book is the period from the civil war to the Vietnam war.
Prof Brogan's enthusiasm for the country and admiration of the indomitable spirit of the people shines through in this middle section. I found myself surprised at the extent to which what through British eyes seems eccentric or idiosyncratic behaviour (eg. some of the states' rights, kitchen cabinets of rich industrialists, even Presidential mistresses) is often rooted in history and tradition.
Despit the length of this book it remains readable throughout. The author moves easily from detail to broad themes and back, and his dry humour lightens many passages. Readers of all nationalities will find this account of American history through British eyes adds to their understanding of modern America and its place in the world.
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on 10 February 2011
Accomplished, articulate, book, which cuts through mere narrative on one hand, polemics on other, to make insightful points. Each chapter gives us its clear and memorable interpretations.
Author has mastery of events and prose unfailingly lucid and lively. Given some basic factual background and a genuine interest, it is a lively read.
Thoroughly recommended. The price is fair. Like all books of its type one cannot quibble because it leaves out some of lesser topics and odder theories: to be encyclopedic diminishes readbility.
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on 27 July 2000
If, like me, you've never read any US histoy and your entire knowledge of it comes from film and television then this is the perfect book for you. Starting with the earliest settlers it goes through all the famous events such as the American Revolution, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Prohibition, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement and Watergate but also deals with less familiar ones and shows how the nation has grown and developed over the centuries. The narrative flow is brilliant and doesn't get bogged down by numerous references to individuals with similar names - for instance it's always clear which member of the Adams family (the political dynasty, not the television series!) is being referred to. This is essential reading for all students of American history but can be enjoyed just as much by casual readers.
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on 2 May 2001
This is definitively one of the best history books I have ever read. The author presents in a clear way the mechanisms behind history, with surprising insights and analyses into the causes. His approach of history is more a thematical one than a chronological one. Thanks to this, references to dates are limited to a minimum, and themes are explored thoroughly. From one chapter to the next, there can be some movement back and forth in time but it is done in a very intelligible way. I read this book with tremendous pleasure !
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