November 27, 2006


When I got those used books at Goodwill, I got an old copy of A Pocket History of the United States. Since I had been looking for a refresher, how could I pass up one for 50 cents? But there was another interesting aspect to this book: it was written in 1942. Before the PC era. So it's un-PC without specifically trying to be un-PC like more recently written books do. It's both strangely refreshing and extremely jarring to read things like "It was fortunate for the white settlers that the Indians of North America were too few and too backward to be a grave impediment to colonization. ... Armed only with the bow and arrow, the tomohawk, and the war club, and ignorant of any military art save the ambush, they were ordinarily no match for well-accoutured and vigilent bodies of whites." No one talks like that anymore! It's an interesting way to read history.

One of the things that has struck me most about this book so far is the preface. Written in 1942, it rings of patriotism and pride. It's worth it to me to type the whole thing out because rarely do we get to read something like this about our own country. (Please stick with me; I know big blocks of quoted text can make my eyes swim too):

America emerged out of obscurity into history only some four centuries ago. It is the newest of great nations, yet it is in many respects the most interesting. It is interesting because its history recapitulates the history of the race, telescopes the development of social and economic and political institutions. It is interesting because upon it have played most of this great historical forces and factors that have molded the modern world: imperialism, nationalism, immigration, industrialism, science, religion, democracy, and liberty, and because the impact of these forces upon society is more clearly revealed in its history than in the history of other nations. It is interesting because, from its earliest beginnings, its people have been conscious of a peculiar destiny, because upon it have been fastened the hopes and aspirations of the human race, and because it has not failed to fulfill that destiny or to justify those hopes.

The story of America is the story of the interaction of an Old World culture and a New World environment, the early modification of the culture by environment, and the subsequent modification of the environment by the culture. The first European settlers in America were not primitive men, but highly civilized, and they transplanted from their homeland a culture centuries old. Yet the United States was never merely an extension of the Old World: it was, what its first settlers anticipated and its founding fathers consciously planned, something new in history. The unconquered wilderness confronting the pioneer from the Atlantic to the Pacific profoundly modified inherited institutions and gave rise to wholly new institutions, and the intermixture of peoples and races modified inherited cultures and created, in a sense, a completely new culture. The new United States became the most ambitious experiment ever undertaken in the deliberate intermingling of people, in religious toleration, economic opportunity, and political democracy--an experiment perhaps still under way.

European historians and commentators, admitting readily enough the substantial virtues of the American people and the value of their political experiments, long asserted that American history was nevertheless colorless and prosaic. It is, on the contrary, dramatic and picturesque, and cast in heroic mold. There are few parallels in modern history to the drama of the swift expansion of small and scattered groups of people across a giant continent, the growth of a few struggling colonies into a continental nation of fifty states, or the spread of a new culture and of new social and economic practices so swiftly to the four quarters of the globe.

Makes your heart swell, huh? That was written by Nevins and Commager, the authors of the book. That was the United States in 1942. And then something happened, something that changed our nation forever. I don't exactly know what it is. My husband and I wonder about it often, why it is that WWII was the last justified war, why the Greatest Generation receives a praise no longer given to men, why no one speaks of the United States being "cast in heroic mold" any longer.

Nevins passed away before the updated edition of the book, so Commager wrote the preface alone in 1976. See for yourself what happened to the United States between these editions.

The first edition of this history was written at the beginning of World War II and was designed to present and interpret the American historical record not only to the English-speaking world, but also to the peoples of all nations who were interested in the evolution of the first constitutional and first democratic society at a time when both constitutionalism and democracy were in mortal peril. In the thirty-five years since its preparation, it has gone through five revisions and enlargements and has been published in most of the languages of the world.

This sixth edition appears as the United States celebrates or recalls two hundred years of independence. The decade since the last edition has been the most challenging, and perhaps the most sobering, since that of the Civil War and Reconstruction. In its preoccupation with war, its succeptibility to large-scale corruption, and its attack upon the integrity of the constitutional system, it discloses interesting analogies to that earlier decade. Thus, this last decade, too, has been a time of trial and disillusionment. It witnessed on the world stage a meaningless and futile war that did infinite damage to a distant people with whom we had no legitimate quarrel, and did irreparable damage to the social, economic, and moral fabric of our society. It witnessed on the domestic stage the ignominy of Watergate and all its attendant evils. It marked, in a sense, the real end of American innocence--the end of that long era that stretched from the Declaration and the Constitution to the Marshall Plan and the launching of the United Nations, when Americans could consider themselves as in some sense exempt from the truth of History and when they could take for granted that Nature and History permitted them to enjoy higher standards of conduct and of morals than the nations of the Old World could afford to indulge. It marked the end, too, on both the domestic and the international scene, of those concepts of an infinity of land and resources, of geographical and moral isolation, and of a special destiny and a special mission, which had bemused the American mind from Jefferson to Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Whether a United States chastened by experience and matured by failure can adapt herself in the third century of her existence to a new position in the world remains for the future to discover. Clearly she has the capacity to do so: immense natural resources, sound institutions, a proud heritage, and a people as competent to meet challenges and overcome trials as any in the world. There is no reason why she should not emerge from the current crisis more dedicated to the values and potentialities of her Constitution, more ardent in her response to her obligations to be vigilant against usurpations of power, more intelligent in setting the limits on that power, and more magnanimous in its exercise.

This is the same man who wrote the first preface. What happened? What turned him from pride in the greatest nation on earth to words like "meaningless and futile", "irreparable damage", and "chastened by experience and matured by failure"? The first half of our history contained slavery and a Civil War, yet there was no talk in that preface of "attendant evils" or "the end of American innocence." I wasn't alive, I don't understand; what happened to our country in the second half of the last century to make us so ashamed of ourselves?

Why do we measure the greatness of the US from the "Constitution to the Marshall Plan" and resent everything that came after?

The United States is the only place on this forsaken planet I would ever want to live, but we have some serious problems. Why can we no longer see our greatness?

Posted by Sarah at November 27, 2006 10:35 AM | TrackBack

Historiography, or the way history is interpreted, has got to be one of my favorite aspects of studying history. Someone's interpretation of a historical event says so much more about their contemporary time and context, than the actual event they are writing about. When I did my final exams for my Master's I had to prep a topic called "The Origins of the Cold War," and depending on which era it was written in, the origin (and blame) lay with someone else. In the early 50s it was all blamed on Stalin, then a little later, all on American aggression, and then in the late 70s and early 80s it was a little of both, and then once the Russian archives were opened after the fall of the USSR there was even more added to the mix. Pretty interesting stuff...and good point about how slavery was something that was okay to look over in the 1940s, but in the wake of Vietnam there was such shame.

Posted by: CaliValleyGirl at November 27, 2006 11:33 AM

It is so sad that we're rewriting our history to make us look less than what we are. I blame the colleges, which are filled with leftists.

We need to reclaim!

Posted by: Nancy at November 27, 2006 12:12 PM

What happened? Vietnam. That's what he's talking when he uses words like "meaningless and futile" and "irreparable damage." Slavery and the Civil War were domestic American issues that we took care of. That's fine. But wars like Vietnam and Iraq hurt our integrity worldwide, obviously. Thanks for the post - it's rather eye-opening if you think about it. Or you could be like Nancy and not think at all.

Posted by: Will at November 27, 2006 12:40 PM

Ah, good. Will's here doing his level best to support his pet meme. Oh dear, am I also not thinking at all?

Posted by: Patrick Chester at November 27, 2006 03:54 PM

"Slavery and the Civil War were domestic American issues"...huh? Slavery, at least in its earlier days, was all about kidnapping Africans and bringing them the the U.S. Hardly a purely domestic issue, unless Africa is somehow part of the U.S. The Civil War disrupted the flow of cotton to the British textile mills, and threw hundreds of thousands--perhaps millions--of millworkers out of their jobs.

Why precisely would Commager (and Will) think that what we were trying to do in Vietnam was morally different from what we did in the Phillipines?

I suspect that Commager's opinion was influenced by the prevailing academic climate: it was popular to be patriotic in 1942; it was popular to anguish about America's lost soul in 1976.

Posted by: david foster at November 27, 2006 03:54 PM

I think David may be right about the author's new pc feelings in the 1976 edition.
I am now 70, I remember WWII vividly. I remember the patriotism. I am going to get some criticsm here but I think the communist left in academia is responsible for a lot of the change. My husband retired 8 years ago after teaching in a college for many, many years. I know what I didn't at the time, Joe McCarthy was on to something. He may have been a drunk, he may have been a real crazy jerk but he knew the communists were trying to take over. I was a liberal in those days. My eyes are opened now. It took Carter to do it. Then all the information that is even now coming out of the Soviet union files tells us he was right. Have you ever read a communist manifesto from the 1940's? If I can find one I will try to email it to you. A lot of it has come to pass.

Posted by: Ruth H at November 27, 2006 04:42 PM

I meant to say Humanist Manifesto in my post. I'm searching for one I can send.

Posted by: Ruth H at November 27, 2006 07:29 PM