Reflections from the other side of the pond

Franklin D. Roosevelt - Twentieth-Century America - The United States and Europe in the Twentieth Century. First edition

February 25, 2005

In the summer of 2004, UK universities reported a marked decline in the popularity of degrees in American studies. Pundits pointed the finger at George W. Bush. This clutch of American history textbooks is a testament to what the absent students are missing. The three authors, Patrick Renshaw, M. J. Heale and David Ryan (of Sheffield, Lancaster and De Montfort universities respectively) all show the British American studies tradition at its best.

Heale's history, suitable for any introductory US history survey course, splits 20th-century America into three distinct epochs, which he dubs "The Progressive Order, 1900-33", "The New Deal Order, 1933-69" and "The Divided Order, 1969-2000". Each section is subdivided into thematic chapters that address key issues across the three-decade span, allowing an engaging narrative to take shape.

Heale is diligent in exploring the development of race, class and gender, and also writes environmental issues into the mainstream of US history. The scope of this book necessitates a transition from historical territory into the recent past, but the treatment of the Clinton Administration is adroitly managed and will serve future students well.

Heale's final paragraph contrasts the terrorist shock of September 2001 with that of September 1901 - the shooting of President William McKinley - and notes that the outrage did not seriously impede the march of American reform. A better parallel for 9/11 from that era would be the sinking of the battleship USS Maine in Havana harbour in February 1898. The loss of the Maine sparked a lightning war against Spain and saw the US bogged down in a brutal counter-insurgency campaign to subdue the Philippines.

Renshaw's masterly biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt covers more of Heale's territory than one might expect. Renshaw contextualises FDR's career with a discussion of his political life in pre-First World War America and follows up with a treatment of the fate of the "New Deal Order", taking the story to beyond the Reagan era.

Renshaw argues that FDR is the central figure in 20th-century American history, saving capitalism and laying the foundation for the US victory in the Cold War. Renshaw's account of Roosevelt's pre-presidential life is especially welcome, revealing many of the strengths, weaknesses and habits of the mature leader in embryo. The author credits Roosevelt's polio as the personal factor that drove him into power and on to greatness.

His discussion of the New Deal is interesting for its willingness to look beyond the Oval Office to consider the role of the President's advisers, legislators and regional leaders. Renshaw allows himself an intriguing counterfactual digression, pondering Roosevelt's reputation had he lost or not run for election in 1940. Roosevelt without his leadership role in the Second World War emerges as a shadow of the man revered today. This book is more digestible than its numerous competitors and would work well on a 20th-century history survey course or in specialist modules dealing with the New Deal era.

Ryan's book is a succinct account of US diplomatic relations with Europe intended to prime students of American foreign policy. Its core narrative of the way in which the US facilitated European integration in the postwar years strikes an ironic note in the era of deepening rifts between Washington and Paris/Berlin.

The volume includes an appendix of key documents and cross-references to recent scholarship. Unfortunately, the attention to mainstream Anglo-American diplomatic history reveals a flaw in this book. One must question the utility of a textbook on US-European relations written without significant reference to European sources.

Ryan also neglects a major body of scholarship within the US discourse exploring the cultural aspects of the transatlantic relationship. We learn nothing of the cross-fertilisation of reform movements at the start of the century, nothing of the power of Hollywood at mid-century, or of the cultural dimensions of the Marshall Plan, which included its own propaganda apparatus. We learn nothing about cultural-exchange policies: the Fulbright Program or the leader grants that brought leaders including Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and half the Bundestag as of 1960 to see the US. We learn nothing about the CIA's sponsorship of the non-communist European left in the cultural Cold War or the inter-relationships of elites on both sides of the Atlantic, most obviously in the Bilderberg Group founded in the 1950s. One can but hope for an expanded second edition.

Nicholas J. Cull is professor of American studies, Leicester University.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Profiles in Power. First edition

Author - Patrick Renshaw
Publisher - Longman
Pages - 223
Price - £15.99
ISBN - 0 582 43803 9

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