The fascinating difference in Brown history professor James T. Patterson's approach to the twenty years after the end of World War Two is in his daring to approach the subject thematically rather than chronologically, which gives both cause for celebration as well as some moments of frustration. While this excellent, literate, and quite readable book is intended for a general audience as an integral part of the so far impeccable Oxford History of the United States series of monographs, including such notable others as the outstanding recent "Freedom From Fear" by Stanford professor David Kennedy (see my review of it), it is not, in my view, a book for the uninitiated or novice history buff.
This much said in way of qualification, I found it to be a wonderful and scholarly book, organized quite usefully and thematically along several critical historical issues unfolding during this time. First, it covers the rise of civil rights consciousness and the subsequent struggle for equality by American minorities; second, it describes in detail the historical phenomenon of the cold war and its concomitant policies and its consequences for Americans in graphic social, economic and political terms; and finally, it explains how the changing demographic composition of the country in both geographic and economic terms changed the nature of economic and political life in America.
All of this is seen through the prism of a change of unequalled economic prosperity and growing disparities between the affluent and those the economic engine driving the country left behind. At the end of WWII, many in this country foresaw a time of burgeoning opportunities and unequalled economic, social, and political growth and movement toward the great American society. Moving from a society that was largely still rural, un-electrified, and agrarian, the post-war boom of the late forties and fifties saw a virtual cultural transformation in the country into one largely urban and suburban, affluent, and industrially employed. Indeed, the fifties represent a watershed period in American history, a time of unequalled wealth and new prosperity for a majority of its citizens.
Yet the America of this period also had more discouraging and less wholesome aspects to it, and these are described and explained in a thoughtful, erudite, and comprehensive narrative that helps one to better understand how this period in American history made us what we are today. Trudging purposefully through a colorful panorama that makes the incredible journey all the way from Harry Truman to Richard Nixon, this culturally astute, insightful & memorable book covers the waterfront of a tumultuous, fractious, & endlessly exciting period of American history. It is truly a book belonging on every purported 20th century history buff's bookshelf. Enjoy!
on February 20, 1999
Grand Expectations is one of the best books on American History that I have read. A very worthy addition to the "Oxford History of the United States" series, it is a judicious account of the fascinating period from the end of WWII to Nixon's resignation in 1974. My only criticism is that the years 1969 -74 were not covered in the same depth and breadth as the earlier years.
Patterson not only deftly illuminates his main cultural theme - the "Grand Expectations" which the American people experienced during this period - but also the curious mixture of supreme self confidence coupled with a nagging insecurity about the "communist menace", and finally, the slow erosion of that confidence following the assassination of the Kennedy's & King, and the debacle of Viet Nam.
Patterson's integration of description and analysis is seamless, his depiction of the events and people is acute, and his notes are a goldmine of sources of further reading.
The book is recommended to anyone with an interest in this era.
James Patterson has assembled the most comprehensive survey of contemporary American history. With the Cold War as the backdrop, he guides the reader through a tumultuous period that took in two wars and the Civil Rights movement. He amply describes the nature of these conflicts and the impact they had on American society. The leading figures are brought into focus, as well as the crucial events of the periods such as the Cuban Missile Crisis. He weaves in a wide variety of cultural issues such as religion, noting how it has influenced successive administrations. He ends the period with the downfall of Nixon, who appears throughout the book from his involvement in the House anti-American investigations, to his vice-presidency under Eisenhower to his subsequent presidency. It is a well-rounded account and a wonderful addition to the Oxford History of the United States.
What was most interesting to me was the powerful influence religion had on our society and the conflicts that arose during the Civil Rights movement and the Age of Aquarius. Patterson noted that Americans remained the most devoted church-goers throughout the troublesome 60's. The church became the rallying point of the Civil Rights movement, and also served as the bastion of white supremacy. Such contradictions made for volatile conflicts as each side felt it had the moral upper hand. The seemingly all-pervasive drug culture may have captured the public's imagination, but by and large America remained a nation of social conservatives.
Patterson provides good overviews of the Korean and Vietnam wars, tying them into the ideology of the Cold War. He shows the seamless pattern that ran through these conflicts, as well as other conflicts in which the US found itself embroiled in during its effort to defeat communism. The costly battles left millions of Asians dead and no clear victories, tarnishing the reputation we had achieved after WWII as the champion of democracy. He illustrates how each president from Truman to Nixon tried to avoid these conflicts, but somehow could never shake the "Losing China syndrome."
It is a well-documented book covering a tremendous amount of ground. Patterson steers clear of polemics, opting for a well-balanced assessment of the era. Naturally when one takes on such a broad subject, certain discrepencies do arise, but there are no glaring errors, and the book has a narrative grace that leads the reader effortlessly through the tumultuous events.
on January 8, 2000
The first two volumes of the Oxford History of the United States synthesized recent scholarly research into readable, even exciting narratives, arranged chronologically to tell the story of their periods. For this volume, author Patterson has made the decision to organize his book thematically rather chronologically. In my opinion, this decision was nothing short of a disaster, because the structure ensures that no narrative momentum or continuity is established.
The book reads like a series of monographs. But they are not scholarly monographs, since the sources are exclusively secondary (even when prominent public figures are quoted and the original sources would be child's play to locate). The first two volumes of the series were scholarly works in the form of popular storytelling. What we have here is the opposite -- a rehash in the form of academic research. It doesn't help that Patterson's political discussions rarely go deeper than a Time magazine article.
Compared to Battle Cry of Freedom or The Glorious Cause, this book is a nearly total failure. Still, it's much better than most academic history in that it presents a fair amount of information without shaving the facts into evidence to support some narrow little argument, it totally avoids jargon, and there's no score-settling with academic enemies. So it gets two stars on the basis that it could have been worse -- it could have been like most of the stuff produced by our history departments.
on October 6, 2002
I read Patterson's book in order to improve my general understanding of the period (1945 - 1974) that he describes. Even though I had lived through those years, I realized that my knowledge and understanding of what happened then were somewhat cursory at best. I finished the book somewhat disapppointed. For one thing, even though my knowledge of the era was limited, I easily noticed a number of surprising errors.
In one egregious example, Patterson devotes a page (p. 276) to describe how `On March 1, 1954, the United States tested the world's first hydrogen bomb..'. He goes on to tell us how fallout from this test sickened crewmen on a Japanese fishing boat, and led to a public outcry. However, as he could have learned from an ordinary World Almanac, the United States tested the first hydrogen bomb in 1952, not 1954. The test he describes is actually the notorious Castle Bravo test, which did in fact occur on March 1, 1954. (The use of lithium deuteride fuel in this test led to an unpredicted secondary reaction, which in turn led the bomb to yield 15 megatons rather than the expected 6, thus endangering the Japanese fishermen, etc.)
At another point (p. 669) he preposterously tells us that the phrase `acid test' dates from the mid 1960's and stems from the use of LSD during that time. He would have been well-advised to consult an ordinary dictionary before making this claim - unless, in fact, it is merely a very subtle joke on the reader.
I also noticed his somewhat uncritical description of an April, 1972 bombing attack as `killing an estimated 100,000 North Vietnamese troops' (p. 758). One can only speculate on how many NVA soldiers Patterson thought were wounded in this attack, which must have marked a turning point in the history of warfare.
What I found especially unsettling about this sort of thing was Patterson's claim (p. xii) - a claim I have no reason to doubt - that a number of eminent historians `read every word' of his manuscript. One wonders - didn't any of these historians remember hearing people say `acid test' before the age of LSD? (Subsequently, after whatever fact-checking the publisher found appropriate, the book appeared as Volume X in the Oxford History of the United States, and went on to win the 1997 Bancroft Prize in History.)
So why, given its obvious unreliability with respect to facts, have I given this book four stars instead of one or two. In the first case, I make allowances for the sprawling unmanageability of the period, and of recent times in general. In the second case, the writing is reasonably balanced and judicious - though Patterson seems to be a liberal, he is neither hysterical nor shrilly self-righteous. Thirdly, the author has made a valiant effort to include and integrate coverage of foreign and domestic politics, the economy, social trends, popular and high culture, and so on. Finally, the book is very readable, though not nearly up to the literary level of its predecessor volume in the series, David Kennedy's distinguished Freedom From Fear: The American people in Depression and War, 1929-1945.
on January 4, 2012
Given the many distinguished volumes in the Oxford History of the United States (by Wood, Kennedy, McPherson, Middlekauf), I was looking forward to reading this one. It was quite a disappointment. It's not just that the decision to proceed thematically more than chronologically produces little in the way of a coherent narrative, though this is indeed the case. It's that the thematic discussions offer nothing new, fresh, or compelling; as other reviewers have noted, there is a very heavy reliance on a fairly small number of secondary sources, and most of the interpretations come directly from these. Again and again, the same strategy is employed: summarize conflicting opinions on some disputed point, declare both views to be "excessive" or "guilty of exaggeration" (but without clearly saying how or in exactly what way), and move on. There's a difference between a serious attempt to be objective or truthful, and a compulsive even-handedness that amounts to an inability to make up one's mind about anything or to come to any definite independent conclusions. What was there in the 1950s that contributed to the 1960s, or in the 1960s that involved a sharp break with the 1950s? Patterson offers nothing but banalities on this subject--it all had to do with 1950-1970 being a period of tremendous economic expansion. Fine, but as both the 50s and the 60s were such, there has to have been something more specific going on than the economic growth that was common to both decades. Were women in the 1950s happy with their lot, or unhappy, or ambivalent? Well, some were, some weren't--there were so many different kinds of women that one really can't say. In other words, for Patterson any generalization not made by the overwhelming majority of his scholarly colleagues is inherently suspect.
The book is more of a report on what American historians (in both senses of the term; with the exception of a very few English scholars, only work by those born in the USA is referenced) think about the period than any sort of independent look at those times. The style is flat and pedestrian, and sometimes worse than that. A pudding without a theme, as Churchill used to say.
on April 7, 2000
This magnificent Oxford History of the United States volume joins earlier OUP volumes, James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" and David Kennedy's "Freedom From Fear," as exemplary history.These reflect the uncommon standard of excellence that personified their editor, C. Vann Woodward.
Professor Patterson,the author of diverse, acclaimed books on this period, draws on an impressive panoply of sources from which he has crafted a judicious assessment of the period from Truman through Nixon.
I find that he strikes the proper timbre in examining this critical period of great American responsibilities and major domestic and international challenges.
One great strength is his sensitivity to economic and social shifts. Another strength is Patterson's keen insights into the personalities of Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, and Carter, with Ford mentioned in passing.
In 790 pages of narrative, some of my favorite examples of quirky history must be excluded. I particularly regret exclusion of the Ford-Kissinger Mayaquez fiasco, in which 41 marines lost their lives rescuing 38 "hostage"crew members who had been released before the rescue operation commenced.
One problem in writing contemporary history is that new, essential source materials are continually being made available. In a subsequent edition i would hope that Professor Patterson might incorporate insights from:
Fred Emery's "Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon," together with the excellent 3-video "Watergate" shown on The Discovery Channel;
John Lewis Gaddis's "We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History;" and
Jeremy Isaacs' & Taylor Downing's "Cold War: an Illustrated History, 1945-1991," which is a companion book to the superb, 24-episode CNN Cold War series.
on September 16, 2014
Another entry in the growing line of the Oxford History of the United States, Grand Expectations covers the post WWII era through the beginning of the Watergate years for the Nixon administration. James T. Patterson earned the Bancroft Prize for this entry. He managed to explain the dizzying heights that Americans reached for before coming to grips with the problems that limited that grasp. He conveyed how Americans saw themselves after the worst war in world history as saviors of democracy. He then contrasted that with some of the views the rest of the world held of the US in many cases.
The book is a fabulous compilation of the various types of history the US went through in this time. The emerging field of social history is on full display in the book which manages to add to the complexity of the true story of this time period. The ugly clash of conservatism versus liberalist is shockingly apparent as well as the realization that both parties used communism and dissension as weapons against each other. However, as the country began to develop a conscience over the concept of equality, the forces split on the issue with both parties undergoing a transformation in the 1960-70 years which would result in the Reagan conservatism of the 1980s and beyond.
Patterson shines with his explanation of the Civil Rights movement and doesn’t pull punches as he describes the brutality of southern whites in suppressing the civil rights of the black minority. The sheer ugliness of one group of people using violence to deny equality to another is vivid. He also covered the insanity of the anti-communism years as both parties used Red Scare tactics to rally party faithful in their platforms. Later he would detail how this fear factor would move headlong into standard GOP political tactics in his sequel to Grand Expectations; Restless Giant.
All in all, the book is a good and detailed explanation of how America moved during these years and fell into the morass known as Vietnam over time. In the process the country finds the rest of the world catching up economically and politically in many ways while America battled its own internal demons. The twin forces of egalitarianism and liberty are shown in their full panoramic view for it was during this time that equality for all truly began to be realized after its budding beginning in the American Revolution.
It is definitely a worthy inclusion in the Oxford series and one most historians will want on their shelves. It is useable in many classes covering the period, especially the survey classes or any other ones that need information from the period. I use it in my own American film history class as context material for the students. The result is historical information meant to be read by any level of adult audience interested in American history.
on July 10, 2011
Grand Expectations is James patterson's first entrant into the Oxford History of the United States. Patterson uses his title as his theme moreso than most authors utilize their book titles. In Patterson's opinion, nearly everyone, regardless of skin color or economic status, developed some type of grand expectation about their future during the time period of this book. Ovr time many realized their expectations were never going to be fully realized, but that didn't stop them from developing their expectations. Following America's emergence as the dominant world power after World War Two, millions of Americans developed a sense of grand expectations regarding their future. For nearly thirty years America went on a power build up of economic and military might. Politicians, while partisan and factious, delivered an economy and helped build a society that placed America at the top of the world power scale. Patterson details this in the first few chaptersof this fine book.
But a funny thing happened along the way. America was not immune from turmoil. Indeed, the very politicans who helped craft our society often ignored racial divisions and class divisions among that permeated the American landscape. Racial tensions eventually boiled over into a civil rights movement that at first was tame and mild but eventually erupted into bloodshed. Common working class citizens demanded fairness in schooling and opportunites for advancement. Patterson carefully and skillfully traces these developments and places them in the proper context of American history.
What makes this book so relevant is that many of the events happened in the lifespan of the baby boom generation. The baby boom is an underlying subtheme for this analysis. Our demand for jobs, housing, education, security, and soforth identified the era that Patterson writes about. Baby boomers expected to have opportunities and that our lives would be better than our parents. The Cold War and containment of communism dominated the headlines of the day, but there were so many things that set America apart from the rest of the world that it was expected that the world would want to follow the American lead.
Oddly enough, that was way too idealistic an approach for a world view. Our struggles with race, with Vietnam, our own tendency to get caught up in hysteria like Joe McCarthy, with Watergate all served as counterweights to the Great Society and the New Frontier we sought. We learned that Government could not spend its resources to eliminate poverty. Is that even the purpose of government? It does have an obligation to provide for a level playing field but it cannot be all things to all people. Similarly government should not promote oppression and disadvantage to its own citizens.
This book is difficult to put down. Patterson's writing style is brisk and informative, yet his book is very readable for both the lay person and the serious historian. He covers many controversial topics and now that the book is fourteen years old, it seems to be able to withstand the test of time and present its case in the face of constantly emerging scholarship. The entire Oxford History of the United States series is exceptionally well done (though it seems to be taking forever to get all of the volumes published) but the series has set the bar high and this book meets that challenge head on. It's page length may intimidate some, but do not be alarmed, as it will leave you wanting more. Other reviewers are correct to point out that Patterson relied probably too much on secondary sources, particularly since so many of what could have been primary sources are readily available, but that doesn't detract from the overall impact of this book. In fact, since he uses so many secondary sources, Grand Expectations is a good historiography of the books covdring this time period.
The book ultimately shows that our expectations were probably too grand for what our leaders were able to deliver, but the fact remains, in a society where we are the dominant world power we need grand expectations to guide our way. In the next twenty years many of our former expectations may well be beyond reach, but for the thirty years covered in this study, we had to prove to ourselves that we couldn't do something rather than that we could do it.
on December 23, 2013
Grand Expectations is a survey of American history from the death of FDR to around the time of Nixon's resignation. He does a very good job covering social and political changes over this dynamic time.
One of the main themes I found was the impact the fear of communism had on our country - on the whole world. I mean, I've known it in general but this book does a very good job and showing the details of that preoccupation and its impact on our social fabric.
The other main theme is one of social justice; it took over a hundred years from the end of the Civil War before a strong civil rights bill was passed. The push for equality for Blacks, women, LGBT, hispanics and other immigrants was always met by an enormous inertia. Many people felt like their personal lives were improving during these boom years or felt a fear of the rest of the world so didn't want to rock the boat.
I enjoy the Oxford History of the United States series; Freedom From Fear by David Kennedy earned 5 stars on my scale. This was not nearly as good; it was more of a survey that didn't give me a feeling that I really knew the individuals. Nevertheless, it is a great starting point for learning about this period of our history. Perhaps one of the reasons I gaveit 5 stars owes to the fact I was born in the early 50's I remembered so much of what this time was like.