FREEDOM FROM FEAR
The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945
By David M. Kennedy
Oxford. 936 pp. $39.95
Reviewed by Michael Kazin
Is the history of the United States largely a narrative of progress and triumph or one dominated by nagging conflicts and social maladies? Anyone who undertakes a grand survey of a historical period must decide this controversial question, at least by implication. And the way a writer answers says a good deal about his or her political views as well as about events we no longer can do anything to change.
David M. Kennedy, who teaches at Stanford, is a New Deal liberal whose convictions have been sobered by the skepticism of our times. In Freedom From Fear he retells the story of the United States during the Great Depression and the greater war that followed it as a wrenching drama with no shining heroes and more suffering than triumph. Yet Kennedy is too good a historian and too sensitive a writer to fall for a single-minded, mordant perspective. His title (borrowed from a famous speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt) affirms the sense of victory most Americans felt after the 15 years of pain were over. After all, they had survived the worst slump in U.S. history and vanquished a horrific set of enemies. Why shouldn't they take comfort in living in what had become one of the most prosperous and stable societies on earth?
Inevitably, the father of modern liberalism gets a share of the credit. For Kennedy, FDR was a clever strategist of patrician origins who worried as much about holding the country together during hard times as he did about nourishing the reforms for which he is remembered. But Roosevelt did articulate a passionate desire, as he put it, to "make a country in which no one is left out." That guaranteed his place in the hearts of fellow citizens who equated inclusion with economic security.
Kennedy makes clear, as have other recent historians, that Roosevelt and the other New Dealers were followers as much as leaders. Their most far-reaching and durable accomplishments -- the Wagner Act, Social Security, agricultural subsidies -- were enacted in response to grassroots movements that threatened to implode the Democratic coalition, then a fragile and self-doubting creature. And they seldom risked defeat to promote a just cause, such as a federal anti-lynching law, that would have angered a large chunk of their electoral base. Kennedy's juxtaposition of black misery in the Jim Crow South with the crude racism of Democratic grandees like Sen. "Cotton Ed" Smith (who walked out of his party's 1936 convention because a black minister delivered the invocation) underlines how much the New Deal left undone.
While Kennedy's treatment of the 1930s is engaging but rather predictable, the author's chapters on World War II consistently rise to the level of the best historical narratives. It is a rare scholar who can analyze precisely why the Allies destroyed their Axis enemies and, at the same time, is able to capture the almost ineffable savagery of the war. Kennedy's account of victory reveals a fondness for the quartermaster's perspective. "Every GI landed in Europe," he writes, "would be supported with forty-five pounds per day of supplies, a quarter of it petroleum and petroleum products, contrasted with twenty pounds for a British soldier and a German quota that sometimes fell to four pounds." The imbalance was even greater between American and Japanese combatants in the Pacific theater. The United States could thus win a war of swift movement, armored and aerial, because the conflict boosted its economy while ruining those of both its allies and foes.
But the inhumanity! Kennedy never allows the justice of the Allied cause to obscure the gory realities of the slaughter in which U.S. forces engaged. He cites a report on the 1942 battle for Guadalcanal that depicted Japanese forces "so ravaged by undernourishment and dysentery that their hair and nails had stopped growing. Their buttocks had wasted away to an extent that completely exposed their anuses." Two years later, the U.S. air campaign against Germany mocked the official doctrine that bombs were unleashed only against "strategic" targets. American warplanes routinely went aloft in bad weather. "The air crews," notes Kennedy, "referred to such missions as `women's and children's days.' "
The author is just as clear-eyed about the political myopia that may have prolonged the killing and the prejudice that undermined the morality of the war at home. In a lengthy crescendo of second thoughts, he indicts Americans for a long list of failings that includes barring refugees from Hitler's Europe, provoking Japan "into a probably avoidable war," imprisoning Japanese citizens for the crime of their ancestry, and preventing black Americans from serving in combat. FDR also gets pasted, more mildly, for misleading the public about his interventionist designs and relying "on goodwill and personal charm" to arrange the postwar order.
Such criticisms tear away whatever romance still clings to the "good war" without questioning the sacrifices Americans made to defeat fascism. The turbulent years Kennedy surveys compose, after the decade of the Civil War, probably the best-researched and most richly discussed period in U.S. history. His conclusions may not be original. But to write about the fires of change with grace, empathy and common sense is an achievement indeed.
Michael Kazin is the co-author of "America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s," to be published in November. He teaches history at Georgetown University.