ON the eve of the Great Crash, in 1929, President Herbert Hoover commissioned a group of social scientists to document the state of American society. Their study drew a word picture of the typical American (male, naturally), who, country-bred, now lived in a city, drove an automobile, and "radioed" in the evenings. "He was living better than his parents had ever dreamed of living," David M. Kennedy, the author of this issue's cover article, "Victory at Sea," writes in He had just cast his first presidential vote, in 1928, for Herbert Hoover, the most competent man in America, maybe in the world. In that same year he married a girl three years younger than he. She gave up her job to have their first baby. They started to think of buying a house, perhaps in one of the new suburbs. Life was just beginning.
And their world was about to come apart. In Freedom From Fear,Kennedy, who is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford University, chronicles on an epic scale the vicissitudes of history that interrupted the saga of hope and progress. Kennedy, a frequent Atlantic Monthly contributor, stresses not continuity but difference -- social, racial, economic, governmental -- between the America of 1945 and the pre-Depression America of the 1920s. What changed the country the most, we asked him recently -- the Depression, the New Deal, or the Second World War? That was the very question on his mind, Kennedy replied, when he began writing his book, and he was now in no doubt as to the answer: the war.
Kennedy ranks the New Deal last, though only because the transformative forces released by the Depression and the war were so profound. It took the cornucopian government spending of the Second World War to end the Depression, a calamity both vast and intimate that scarred a generation. The Second World War, the subject of "Victory at Sea," proved to be perhaps the hottest forge of change in American history. It brought the American people, Kennedy writes, "as far as imagination could reach, and beyond, from the ordeal of the Great Depression and ... opened apparently infinite vistas to the future."
That future was not given; it was won by the suffering, sacrifice, and courage of the thousands of typical Americans who fought through to victory.
-- THE EDITORS
Photograph by Steve Gladfelter/Stanford University
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1999; 77 North Washington Street; Volume 283, No. 2; page 6.