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When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Liberalism in Post-War America 1st Edition

4 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0415947763
ISBN-10: 0415947766
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

According to Mattson, Ronald Reagan’s 1988 Republican Convention address crowned a long campaign to turn the word "liberal" into a dreaded insult. In this volume, the prolific scholar of the Left defends what he views as an embattled faith under attack from both sides, with the hope that "a better understanding of liberalism can improve current political discussion." Mattson demonstrates the dynamism of the tradition by examining the views and trajectories of leading Cold War liberal thinkers, "eggheads" like economist John Kenneth Galbraith, historian Arthur Schlesinger, journalist James Wechsler and Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Wedged between the Henry Wallace-led progressives on the Left and Senator Joe McCarthy on the Right, these men negotiated intellectual and practical challenges like communism, conservation, civil rights, Vietnam and the balancing of principles with power. They defined the "Fighting Faith," Mattson writes, during a time of great upheaval through their passionate commitment to the ideals of America and their willingness to criticize it. Mattson’s thoroughly researched accounts and clear prose provide a strong sense of his protagonists, though at times extensive reporting overshadows limited analysis. He betrays his own liberal pride, but highlights his characters’ weaknesses, including muddled beliefs like "countervailing power" of labor against business interests and "cycles of history" between conservative and liberal orientations of the polity. Mattson also cedes ground to liberalism’s critics, admitting that his egghead elite "traveled in a world of white men" and that because "liberalism embraces complexity and nuance over simple sloganeering, it is a foreign language to the shouting world of pundits." Yet, by failing to extrapolate his implications to the present day, Mattson falls short of his primary goal.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


Kevin Mattson's When America Was Great demands our attention. His liberals - Niebuhr, Schlesinger, Galbraith, and others--fought for reform and a vital center against the conservatism of the postwar years. Mattson chronicles the programs, ideas, and personalities, without ignoring the problems, of these often-underappreciated liberals. Most importantly, his liberal tradition promises to be both relevant and necessary for us today.
–George Cotkin, Author of Existential America

Kevin Mattson is one of the foremost historians reminding us of the forgotten importance of midcentury liberal values in the United States. This well-written volume is a valuable study of key thinkers at the time, most of whom have yet to receive such gifted assessment. Mattson's book arrives at an opportune time because some of the issues facing the liberals in this book are similar to what is being faced by Americans today: how best to preserve liberal freedom in the face of illiberal threats both from abroad and within
–Neil Jumonville, William Warren Rogers Professor of History, Florida State University and the author of Critical Crossings: The New York Intellectuals in Postwar America

A learned, provocative case for the sound, reflective cause of liberalism in our age of unchallenged conservatism.
–John Patrick Diggins, Distinguished Professor of History and author of The Rise and Fall of the American Left

Those on the radical left and the conservative right have both shown a disdain for the liberalism professor Kevin Mattson shows a nostalgia for in the sophisticated When America was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism. In the new book from Routledge, Mattson writes of a group of intellectuals and leaders who embraced a pragmatic liberal vision for America, thinkers and doers like Arthur Schlessinger Jr. and Adlai Stevenson. Mattson stresses that America, which could learn so much from studying this intellectual history, is in danger of forgetting the movement all together.
–Chicago Free Press

Thought-provoking and important, this work challenges us to reexamine what we were, what we have lost, and where we wish to go as a nation. If liberalism has become a dirty word in today's politics, Mattson demonstrates how the liberalism of the post-World War II generation shaped the course of American and world history, placing the United States at the center of world affairs..
–Library Journal, November 15, 2004 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge; 1 edition (September 29, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415947766
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415947763
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,805,756 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By David Southworth VINE VOICE on February 13, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Kevin Mattson has written an engaging intellectual history of post World War II liberalism. This history has become relevant again today as liberals try and find what fires them, what their core beliefs are and how to translate those beliefs into real policy proposals.

Mattson focuses his book on four men to tell his story: John Kenneth Galbraith, Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and James Wechsler. These men believed in the greatness of America. However, they also believed that the country could be improved upon. They supported policies that they saw as improving the whole country, such as protection of the environment and improvement of public schools. They rejected both libertarianism and communism as being unhealthy for the entire country.

Mattson focuses mostly on liberalism and domestic policy, while I thought he could have done much more if he discussed more foreign policy. Also, he switches between a conversational and a more conventional tone. Because of these issues, as well as lax editing, this book is not as strong as it could have been. However, as a primer on this important topic, especially when many today are beginning to look back on these times as glory days in liberal thought, this is a fine place to start.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Robin Orlowski on July 3, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Kevin Mattson uses historical data from John Kenneth Galbraith, Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and James Wechsler among othera to demonstrate that America had prospered in the post-war era not in spite of liberals but specifically because of us.

In doing so, Ohio University's Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History builds upon previous scholarship of who the new left is, where they came from, and how they benefited the country. The left cannot prepare for the future without first understanding what it has previously accomplished and how those victories were won. Specific dates refer to the cold-war era, but the lessons inside Mattson's book are applicable today.

Both in reaction to the domestic excesses of Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist crusade and the recent memory of international facism, liberals argued that we needed a better approach-and they would provide it. Civil rights was not a threat to America, but a demonstration of the democratic system at its very best. While some policy makers did not have identical personal motives for supporting this cause, they publically talked about an America where people were united by their commonalities rather than being torn apart by their differences.

Civil rights policy consequently became possible and at a pace which was rapid-fire when compared with the successes of previous generations. Measures which had languished for years were passed, albeit not without some struggle of their own.

However, public legislator opposition to civil rights bills ultimately became viewed as being a hold-out to progress and a `great America' rather than functioning as a preservation measure.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By The Rogue on July 10, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I have been planning on writing a few words about this important book for a while, and the most recent misdeeds of Karl Rove finally pushed me to it. No, there is nothing specifically in When America was Great about Rove, but there might as well be. Because what When America was Great does best is torch the straw man that is Rove's (and others like him) comic book version of liberalism.

The damage done by the comic book version of liberalism to the American body politic is well known now -- and it amounts to more than the usual dishonesty about partisan rivals. While it may be true that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, it is certainly true that those who do not know history are both squandering its legacy and helpless to identify -- let alone fix -- inhereted problems.

But Mattson does know history and how make some use of it. Where the comic book version of liberalism presents archetypes of permissive pansies that blame America for every wrong that afflicts the planet, Mattson looks to the ideas, actions and values of actual key political players during the cold war. What emerges is largely what one would expect from serious people committed to advancing liberalism after Roosevelt and his New Deal--namely, liberals addressing nation defining problems like communism (internal and external), civil rights, and the ever-present realities of political goverance.

Readers can expect more from When America was Great than a short historical trip through 1950s intellectual history. I particularly like Mattson's treatment of pluralism in his chapter entitled Values and his notion of qualitive liberalism. Mattson uses key liberal intellectuals like Reinhold Neibuhr, J.K.
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By HomoSardonicus on August 19, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Having just finished this book for the second time I come away with great respect for the individuals profiled. I have read many of Schlesinger's books, my favorites being A THOUSAND DAYS: JOHN F. KENNEDY IN THE WHITE HOUSE; THE AGE OF JACKSON; ROBERT KENNEDY AND HIS TIMES; and the FDR trilogy. John Kenneth Galbraith has also been a delight to read. But along with respect comes sadness, a bitter sweet belief than "Greatness" has fled, perhaps never to return. As public intellectuals of the highest caliber, these men understood that America's greatness had to be measured, not only by economic prosperity and military power, but by a shared sense of national community, a belief in the arts and public spaces, and a purpose higher than individual needs and desires, among others. There was a need for "qualitative liberalism" as well as quantitative. As a child I distinctly remember the Kennedy Administration with its soaring rhetoric of public service, coupled with frenetic energy and a belief that everything was possible.
That time has passed, cut tragically short by President Kennedy's assassination and the Vietnam war, both events forever burned in my mind and spirit. Everything seemed to unravel. The spirit of public optimism is now long gone and I see little reason to believe it will ever return. This nation doesn't seem to do anything; what exactly do we do as a people except satisfy our collective gluttony? Our sights are no longer set on the stars but on our expanding waistlines; it is both hilarious and grotesque.
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