H.W. Brands's "American Dreams," reviewed by Charles Kaiser

By Charles Kaiser
Sunday, September 19, 2010


The United States Since 1945

By H. W. Brands

Penguin Press. 420 pp. $32.95

The story of the United States since 1945 offers a historian the opportunity to mine a rich narrative of steady change and dramatic transformation. With the end of World War II now 65 years behind us -- and all of the 1960s at least 40 years old -- this ought be a good time to offer new information and fresh insights into the political, social and cultural events that re-invented the country in the postwar period.

"American Dreams" appropriately dates the beginning of the modern era to the first explosion of an atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert in July 1945. Here, H.W. Brands, a history professor at the University of Texas, does a good job of making the familiar seem fresh: "Many of the observers were struck by the silence that surrounded the detonation. The astonishing display of light and color took place without a soundtrack -- until the sonic waves reached the observation posts many seconds after the light waves." As J. Robert Oppenheimer, the project's director, wrote: "I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture . . . 'Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or the other."

Oppenheimer's remark is famous, of course, and the author's one consistent success in this volume is to recall most of the famous quotations associated with most of the important events of these seven decades. Thus, we are reminded of everything from Joseph Welch's chastisement of Sen. Joe McCarthy ("Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?") to President Dwight Eisenhower's sadly unheeded warning at the end of his administration ("The very structure of our society [is involved]. We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence . . . by the military-industrial complex.") and Norman Mailer's early assessment of John F. Kennedy in Esquire ("His personal quality had a subtle, not quite describable intensity.").

But when it comes to using the past to understand the present, Brands has hardly anything to say at all. For instance, he quotes Walter Lippmann's warnings about the danger of the United States over-extending itself in the 1950s: Our clients "will act for their reasons, and on their own judgment, presenting us with accomplished facts which we did not intend, and with crises for which we are unready. We shall have either to disown our puppets . . . or must support them at an incalculable cost on an unintended, unforeseen and perhaps undesirable issue." But the author never connects that wise, 60-year-old warning to our current situation in Afghanistan.

Instead of broad themes about the direction of American history, Brands offers an endless series of mini-portraits of major events, without ever finding a way of tying any of them together. And when he does try to make a larger point, he often stumbles.

For example, he writes that Vietnam "seared itself on the American mind, replacing the Munich syndrome with a Vietnam syndrome. The former had said that when in doubt, America must fight. The latter asserted that when in doubt, America mustn't." That abbreviated summary is fine as far it goes. But then Brands adds this meaningless sentence: "Neither did much to diminish the doubt, the source of all the trouble."

From this distance, it is obvious to this reviewer that the misuse of the Munich precedent led the United States into a costly misadventure in Vietnam, while the "Vietnam syndrome" imposed a welcome restraint on American interventionism -- until the neocon movement insisted on "getting beyond it" so that we could once again waste billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives (ours and our enemies') in endless interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Brands always avoids those broader judgments.

Sometimes his capsule descriptions of famous events omit important facts and long-revealed ironies. For example, he notes that Lyndon Johnson got rid of defense secretary Robert McNamara when his enthusiasm for the Vietnam War had disappeared. Then the author adds: "But McNamara's successor was no more upbeat. Clark Clifford told Johnson . . . that Vietnam had become a 'sinkhole.' " All of that is true, but it omits the main reason Clifford's assessment as the new secretary of defense carried so much weight: It was a complete reversal of what his position on the war had been when Johnson had chosen him to be McNamara's successor just a few weeks earlier.

Similarly, Brands writes that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley "deemed the anti-war protesters the scum of the earth" when they descended on his city during the Democratic National Convention of 1968 -- but he leaves out the long-known irony that Daley himself hated the Vietnam War because the son of a close friend had been one of its casualties.

In the same section, Brands reports that demonstrators provoked the Chicago police with taunts of "Pigs, pigs, fascist pigs," but he never mentions that Freedom of Information suits filed by CBS News led the network to conclude 10 years later that as many as one out of six of those demonstrators was actually a government agent.

Brands does a passable job of summarizing the facts behind major political events, but when it comes to social and cultural change, he never has anything interesting to say. The author avoids controversy so assiduously that his book sometimes reads as if its main purpose were to win acceptance by the Texas Board of Education, which decides what facts are appropriate for high school history books.

The journalist Molly Ivins once wrote, "It is possible to read the history of this country as one long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America." The women's movement and the civil rights movement both get standard treatment in Brands's book, but the gay rights movement is barely mentioned at all. Yet the transformed status of women, African Americans and gay people during the last seven decades, produced by the struggle Ivins described, is the most important story of change in the United States in the 20th century.

No one would get any hint of that narrative from this volume. At the end of 385 pages of text, all Brands has to tell us is this: "Americans had dreamed since our national birth, and in the twenty-first century we were dreaming still."

Historical judgments don't get any more banal than that.

Charles Kaiser is the author of "1968 In America" and "The Gay Metropolis." He writes the Full Court Press blog for the Sidney Hillman Foundation.

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