America Agonistes
A masterful historian sums up the uneasy era from Nixon's resignation to the Florida recount.

Reviewed by Paul Kennedy
Sunday, September 18, 2005


The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore

By James T. Patterson

Oxford Univ. 448 pp. $35

This splendid and readable new book is the latest volume in that ambitious series, "The Oxford History of the United States." It thus has the daunting task of matching the quality of other titles in the series, especially Robert Middlekauff's The Glorious Cause (on the American Revolution) and James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom (on the Civil War).

To reach those lofty standards is all the more difficult because the years covered by Restless Giant are not especially distinguished. James T. Patterson, an emeritus history professor at Brown University, had earlier written Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (thus being the only historian to contribute two volumes to the Oxford series), so the decision was clearly made long ago to regard Richard M. Nixon's resignation in 1974 as the "break point" in the story of American politics and society since World War II. But this leaves Patterson with the rather awkward time frame of 1974 to 2000-01 for his second book, not to mention forcing him to settle for an extremely inelegant subtitle. One wonders whether the planners and editors at Oxford University Press were fully aware of this chronological awkwardness when making their early decisions (is there really a recognized period called "Nixon to Bush 43" as there is for "The Progressive Era" or "The Interwar Years"?)

That said, Patterson has risen magnificently to the task of describing and analyzing this rich and confused period. Of course, to undergraduate freshmen these years are already history (none of my students was alive, for example, when Ronald Reagan was elected president), but to other readers this narrative is all too recognizable -- almost yesterday's news, though delivered with great balance. In fact, the many themes covered here -- such as the heated debates over abortion, the role of the Supreme Court, the Watergate aftershocks, the consumer revolutions, the rise of Latino communities and the economic stagnation of black ones, the coming of the Internet, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Black Hawk Down disaster in Mogadishu -- will occasionally seem all too recent. This reader confesses that he sometimes felt that he was reading, say, the Economist's "Year in Review" and then realized that the events in question had taken place 12 or 15 years ago.

To say that 1974-2001 was a confused period is in no way to criticize Patterson; indeed, perhaps it simply confirms the awkwardness of the beginning and end dates. For there is no clear, defining event that gives framework and sense to these particular years. In large part, that may be why so many Americans have felt upset, bereft and adrift from their traditional political, social and religious moorings, whereas others felt liberated, super-charged and excited by their material prospects or changes in lifestyle. This has been a heady but uneasy quarter-century, a bit like the 1890s or the 1920s in some ways, and it is extraordinarily difficult for even the smartest commentator to guess which way the tides are flowing. Patterson certainly gives it a great shot.

I particularly admired two aspects to this book. First, Restless Giant is extraordinarily sharp in its repeated references to and use of American popular culture -- be it the movies of the time or the better known television series -- as key indicators of shifts in lifestyles, tastes and, ultimately, political preferences. And surely the author's policy is right; it is hard to think of a previous society in which broad-based popular culture (or, as T.S. Eliot would put it, "low culture") has been so integrated with national politics and change. The Beatles or Bruce Springsteen were not "just" rock groups, and Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities and Michael Crichton's Rising Sun were not "just" novels for the beach.

Second, although Patterson does not claim this to be a chief thrust of his book, he is excellent in his coverage of the rise of the ultra-conservative right, especially the role of the Moral Majority. For all the signs of "confusion" above, therefore, one political trend emerges rather clearly from this 25-year-long tale: the increasing clout of the cultural-religious and political right. And who knows --it may still not have reached its zenith. This thought, disturbing to many American liberals, does not seem to excite Patterson, whose approach is one of, "I neither approve nor disapprove; I tell the tale."

The chief deficiency of this work is, ironically, the consequence of its strong focus upon the domestic scene. True, Patterson ends with some rueful retrospective comments on the increasing evidence of foreign threats to U.S. security (especially al Qaeda) by the turn of the century, and he has a fine chapter on "America and the World in the 1980s." But because his heart and mind are focused upon our rich domestic scene, he gives little space to the question of how the world outside the "Restless Giant" has been quickly tilting over the past decades, and not necessarily in the Giant's favor. Such considerations need not have added much to an already ambitious book, and this reviewer, at least, would have welcomed Patterson's thoughts on whether the powerful but haphazard nation that has moved from the Age of Nixon to the Age of Bush II may or may not be enjoying a calm before some very severe storms.

For it is not just that al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups are out there, waiting to hurt America and Americans in all the frightening ways that the Bush administration stresses so much. The past 25 years have also witnessed colossal swings in the global balances of power, especially in the rise of Asia. There have been disturbing changes in our environment, to which we have given inadequate attention. There has been significant proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which could ultimately wind up in jihadist hands. There has been a serious overstretch of the American military, especially in Asia and the Middle East, despite colossal Pentagon budgets. There have been major shifts in the place of the U.S. economy in the world, together with America's increasing financial vulnerability. And the Number One Power has become incredibly unpopular in many parts of the world, to a degree that would have amazed such internationally admired presidents as Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

These, too, are part of the complex story of how the world's Giant performed in the final quarter of the 20th century. Patterson's account is, for all the reasons mentioned above, a bold attempt to place some order upon the many domestic turbulences of the age. Still, one cannot help but wonder whether the scholar who covers the history of America during the years 2000 to 2025 may not have a very different story to tell, a story in which people will increasingly look back with nostalgia and some regrets to the Nixon to Bush II years -- years that were exciting, controversial and divisive, to be sure, but also years in which American politicians and voters avoided hard choices, saw the rest of the world through narrow blinders and frittered away their patrimony. Patterson is perhaps too sober and wily to engage in crystal-ball gazing; but because he speaks and writes with such authority upon the entire sweep of American history since the defeat of Germany and Japan, some final thoughts upon those terrible five decades, plus some canny reflections upon where we are now, would have been a grand way to conclude an excellent book. ยท

Paul Kennedy is a professor of history at Yale University and the director of its international security studies program. He is the author or editor of 16 books, including "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," and has just completed a book on the United Nations.

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