When apple pie still tasted good

Grand Expectations
June 6, 1997

Grand Expectations is the tenth volume in the Oxford History of the United States, a series dedicated to synthesising social, political, economic, cultural and military history into accessible slices of American development. The period covered in this volume begins with the metamorphosis of the second world war and ends with the assembled anxieties of failed escapism in the gasoline queues of the mid-1970s.

James Patterson has provided a tour d'horizon which unusually is also a tour de force. Patterson is very adept at mixing social insight with economic analysis, domestic policy with international relations, and political ideas with popular culture. He is equally at home examining the manoeuvres of state and the arguments of Supreme Court judges as he is with drawing interpretive meanings from a film like The Graduate. As an exercise in gathering together a multiplicity of histories into a coherently constructed history, Grand Expectations is an exceptional achievement. There can be little doubt that the volume will become the standard single text on the period.

It is the high standard of erudite compression that makes small deficiencies conspicuous and leaves the reader not only wanting more but expecting it. On a purely technical point, the chapters would have benefited from having titled sections, thereby allowing readers a greater sense of location in what is an extensive narrative.

On a more substantive level, the author's task of taking on such a long and turbulent period of recent history has resulted in a confinement of perspective that is evident in at least two respects. First, Patterson is correctly aware of the need to appear impartial in what is almost an official history of the United States. Nevertheless, the drive to achieve balance sometimes leads to frustration over the nature of the author's real views and his unwillingness to express ethical judgements except through a contemporary source or an alternative historical account. The CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala (1954) provides a case in point. Coming as it did soon after the CIA's success in re-engineering the state in Iran through similar methods, the coup highlighted the international role of covert action by the United States in subverting the claims of self-determination by other sovereign nations. After 40 years, it might be thought that the Guatemalan coup could now be accepted as an unnecessary and excessive response - perhaps even a mistake, an abuse of power, an ethical problem. Whether Patterson is making a conscious effort to assimilate the mindset of the cold war in order better to convey its pathology, or simply regards judgements of this nature to be superfluous and outside his brief is not clear, but the net effect is one in which the historical account has the flavour of the historical period itself. The author neither steps back, nor steps out, from the era. As a consequence, the view of the Guatemalan action has a distinctly 1970s feel to its guarded disapproval. The coup is described as being simply "unfortunate" for a range of reasons. Staged coups in such countries only "exacerbated internal tensions"; they encouraged a greater use of covert action in less appropriate areas leading to "disastrous" failures; they "involved" regional vested interests; and "they indicated the power of cold war thought and action within the Eisenhower administration". The conclusions are not only understated, they are based upon functional criteria rather than on evaluative principles. This is a curious anomaly given that one of the key observational themes in the book is the growth of "rights consciousness".

Second, the author does not risk the use of the period to re-examine any historical generalisations concerning American society and culture. Given that two of the most significant depictions of the consensual unity of American history (Daniel Boorstin, The Genius of American Politics and Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America) were produced at the height of the cold war and had far-reaching effects on America's conceptions of its own identity, it would have been informative to know Patterson's views on why such popular works on American historiography became so quickly established and the extent to which the 1960s and 1970s disrupted their analyses and, with it, America's views of itself and its position in history. In many respects, the period under review represents a classic case of one of Arthur Schlesinger's "cycles of American history", or Samuel Huntington's surges of "creedal passion", but Patterson's text is unsympathetic to using such devices as analytical tools. His history is intended to show the history of the period - period! It is not designed to provide a way of revealing something about the historical dynamics of American society in general. This is understandable in one sense in that seven volumes of the Oxford series remain to be written, but some acknowledgement of the longitudinal dimension and its bearing upon the period would have illuminated the transformative energies of the era and made the history more of a genuine summation rather than a compilation.

Notwithstanding these points, Patterson's American journey is an epic venture. It provides insights not merely into the 1945 to 1974 period but into the problematic disjunctions and ambiguities of present-day America.

Michael Foley is professor of politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Grand Expectations: The Oxford History of the United States, 1945-74

Author - James T. Patterson
ISBN - 0 19 507680 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 829

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