A Magisterial History
The years of abundance and racial reconstruction were
all the time making for the darkest folly
by Jack Beatty
by James T. Patterson.
The United States,
1945 - 1974
Oxford University Press, 829 pages,
Order Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945 - 1974
Of Thomas E.
Dewey's vapidity in 1948 the Louisville Courier-Journal observed,
HIS book takes its place in the most distinguished
series in American historical scholarship, the Oxford History of the United
States. It is the third of what will be ten titles; one of its
predecessors, James McPherson's Battle
Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, won a Pulitzer Prize; the other,
Robert Middlekauff's The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution,
1763 - 1789, won numerous prizes. In consultation with Sheldon Meyer,
the dean of editors in the field of scholarly history and a senior
vice-president at Oxford, C. Vann Woodward, the general editor of the
series, commissions a noted scholar to read as many as is humanly possible
of the secondary works published on his period -- the biographies, the
monographs, the special studies -- and as many of the primary sources as
macro-history can use, and to synthesize a generation's worth of historical
inquiry and knowledge into one literally state-of-the-art book. Who
touches these books touches a profession.
will not attempt to summarize the substance of James Patterson's Grand
Expectations: The United States, 1945 - 1974. What could one say about
these postwar years in a few hundred words beyond banal generalities?
Instead I will single out just a few of the qualities that make Grand
Expectations a major work, equal to its predecessors.
1) Thematic simplicity. Patterson, the Ford Foundation Professor of
Brown University, wisely eschews thematic novelty. Of course grand
expectations dominated American life and action throughout this era.
Patterson does not impose this thesis. It rises from the material
uncoerced by intellectual ambition. A more commercial publisher might have
asked him, What's your angle? And Patterson might have replied, The
2) Common sense.
Relieved of the burden to be brilliant, Patterson is free to be sensible.
For example, discussing the transformation of blue-collar workers from
Depression have-nots to postwar haves, he writes, "In this way, as in many
others, the recovery of the American economy reshaped American politics -- for
the most part toward the center and the right." In explaining the limited
appeal of left-liberal politics in these years, that sentence obviates
3) An eye for unbeatable contemporary quotations.
presidential candidate in the future will be so inept that four of his
major speeches can be boiled down to these four historic sentences:
Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have
freedom without liberty. The future lies ahead.
Priceless, but vulnerable
as prophecy. Tom Dewey, make room for Bob ("Like everyone else in this
room, I was born") Dole.
Of the election in that same year the humorist
Fred Allen said, "Truman is the first President to lose in a Gallup and win
in a walk."
Eisenhower grumbling to himself while making "spots" -- the
first political ads on TV in a national campaign -- in a New York studio: "To
think that an old soldier should come to this."
Eisenhower again, this
time to his diary, on the subject of William Knowland, the Senate
Republican leader and gruff voice of the China lobby: "In his case, there
seems to be no final answer to the question, 'How stupid can you get?'"
Ike on TV: "If a citizen has to be bored to death, it is cheaper and more
comfortable to sit at home and look at television than it is to go outside
and pay a dollar for a ticket."
John F. Kennedy to Theodore Sorensen,
while working on Kennedy's inaugural speech: "Let's drop the domestic stuff
JFK to Richard Nixon: "Foreign affairs is the only important
issue for a President to handle, isn't it? ... I mean, who gives a shit
if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25, compared to something like Cuba?"
JFK to the journalist Charles Bartlett in 1963: "We don't have a prayer of
staying in Vietnam. We don't have a prayer of prevailing there. But I
can't give up a piece of territory like that to the Communists and then get
the people to reelect me."
On Vietnam again, this time from the speech
Kennedy did not live to deliver in Dallas: "We dare not weary of the
4) A will to redeem the world by the power of the word from the monotone
dream of television.
Thus Patterson's description of an incident that
took place after McCarthyism, as Ike joked to his Cabinet, had become
"McCarthywasism": "When Nixon visited Milwaukee during the 1956 campaign,
McCarthy sidled up to a seat next to him. A Nixon aide asked him to leave,
and he did. A reporter found him weeping."
And on the charge of Sheriff
Jim Clark's men against peaceful civil-rights marchers on the Edmund Pettis
Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and the felling of John Lewis:
They tore forward
in a flying wedge, swinging their clubs at people in the way. Lewis stood
his ground, only to be cracked on the head. He suffered a fractured skull.
With white onlookers cheering, the troopers rushed ahead, hitting the
demonstrators and exploding canisters of tear gas. Five women were beaten
so badly that they fell down near the bridge and lost consciousness.
Sheriff Clark's horsemen then joined in the assault. Charging with rebel
yells, they swung bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire.
have seen that charge many times in TV documentaries, yet Patterson makes
us see it as if for the first time. Such is the power of writing.
Portraits energized by brevity.
Hoover was vain, surrounded by sycophants,
obsessed with order and routine. People who met him in his later days at
the F.B.I. were led through his many "trophy rooms" to his office, which
glowed with a purplish insect-repelling light that Hoover, a hypochondriac,
had installed to "electrocute" bad germs.
concession to fairness represented by "almost."
[Henry Kissinger] was a
gregarious, arrogant, and extraordinarily egotistical self-promoter who
carefully cultivated good relations with journalists and who was ready to
work for almost anyone who would give him access to power.
F adopted as the standard
college text on this period, Grand Expectations will be bound to affect the
reputations of the postwar Presidents. John F. Kennedy, who in a recent
poll ranked with Lincoln as the greatest figure of the last thousand years,
will suffer most, as students innocent of the Kennedy charisma come of age
knowing little more of him than what Patterson tells them. Patterson finds
little to praise in Kennedy's domestic record -- not surprising, given
Kennedy's preoccupation with the Cold War. Patterson's verdict on
Kennedy's foreign policy is even harsher. On the aborted April, 1961,
CIA-sponsored "invasion" of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, Patterson notes,
witheringly, "A radio station on the beach, overlooked by the CIA, reported
the assault." Regarding Laos, whose "neutralization" in 1962 was once
accounted a Kennedy success, Patterson is scathing about a secret
counterinsurgency war that Kennedy launched using 36,000 Hmong tribesmen
and thousands of Thai "volunteers"; this "continued for years until exposed
in the 1970's."
On Kennedy's blink-at-the-brink confrontation with
Khrushchev over the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba:"A mano a mano
emotionality imparted to Soviet-American relations in 1962 a volatility
that did credit to neither man as a diplomatist and that provoked the most
frightening military crisis in world history."
Writing in The New Yorker at
the time, Richard Rovere said that in getting the missiles removed from
Cuba without war, Kennedy had achieved "perhaps the greatest personal
diplomatic victory of any President in our history." Rovere wrote without
knowledge of the thirty-three post-Bay of Pigs plans to assassinate Castro,
however, or of the Kennedy brothers' covert action, in Robert's words, "to
stir things up on the island with espionage, sabotage, general disorder."
The Cubans, Patterson writes, "might not have looked so eagerly for Soviet
military help" if that covert action, Operation Mongoose, had not given
them reason to fear an open American invasion to expunge the failure of the
Bay of Pigs. Indeed, Mongoose saboteurs, whom the CIA could not reach
during the crisis, blew up a Cuban factory on November 8. "What would the
enemy have thought if Mongoose agents had succeeded in doing so at the
height of the crisis in late October?" Patterson asks. Would they have seen
it as the opening shot of a U.S. invasion or air strike at the missile
sites, and with what consequences? The equally reckless Khrushchev had given
the Soviet commanders authority to fire the nine nuclear-tipped short-range
missiles they had ready in Cuba if attacked. The stakes were indeed
Kennedy handled the crisis deftly and, in rejecting his
advisers' counsel to bomb the missile sites, even courageously. The credit
he deserves for crisis management, however, is offset by the blame he must
accept for crisis production.
INALLY, Vietnam. Throughout, Patterson
emphasizes the "optional" or "inner-directed" nature of U.S. foreign policy
in the years of the Cold War, meaning that policy "often depended less on
what other nations did or did not do than on what experts thought the
United States had the capacity to do" -- a capacity deemed limitless in the
era of grand expectations. Nothing sets that era further apart from our
era of "often rancorous disillusion" than the most irresponsible statement
made by any of the five Presidents whom Patterson discusses. That
statement was in the Inaugural Address from which Kennedy told his
speechwriter to remove the "domestic stuff": "Let every nation know . . .
that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support
any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of
liberty." Not our liberty -- the unqualified flame itself. Grand expectations
Vietnam shadows the reputations of all the Presidents of the
postwar period: Truman because he broke with the anti-colonialism of FDR by
subsidizing much of the French war in Indochina and by backing the French
colonial puppet Bao Dai; Eisenhower because he approved the decision of
South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem, Bao Dai's successor, to cancel the
1956 all-Vietnam elections that two years earlier had been called for by
the Geneva conference that ended the French phase of the war in Indochina;
Johnson because he escalated the war catastrophically; and Nixon because he
spent the lives of 20,553 members of what he called the "Spock-marked
generation" and of perhaps 700,000 Vietnamese to achieve peace terms in 1973
that were very close to what the North Vietnamese had offered, and he had
found unacceptable, in 1969. But it was Kennedy's Inaugural that lent the
Vietnam War its inspiring vision.
If we will "pay any price, bear any
burden," then calculations of national interest are beside the point.
Prudent realism is a counsel of cowardice. Because, of course, the end of
the burden-bearing and price-paying was not the preservation of liberty in
South Vietnam; it had no liberty to preserve. Diem was a dictator whose
repression had led to the rebellion the United States was trying to quell.
The end was preserving U.S. "credibility" in the nuclear standoff with the
Soviet Union. Credibility -- the enemy's belief that we were just crazy
enough to blow up the world -- was an abstract end. Unlike self-limiting war
aims such as territory occupied or the surrender of the enemy, credibility
was a psychological standard proof against correction by reality. Who knew
when you had enough of it to convince the enemy that you'd press the
button? It was fear as strategy. If we were crazy enough to fight a war
in Vietnam, we were crazy enough to do anything.
Founded in fear over
maintaining credibility, in the domino theory ("I believe it," Kennedy told
David Brinkley in September of 1963) of Chinese expansion to Tasmania, in
messianic hubris -- as a chastened posterity must rechristen the Kennedy
"idealism" -- and in domestic political calculation, Kennedy's Vietnam policy
lit the fuse that Truman and Eisenhower had left. Rejecting the 1961
recommendation of Averell Harriman and Chester Bowles to seek a negotiated
settlement with the South Vietnamese Communists that would reverse Diem's
fateful rejection of all-Vietnam elections, Kennedy instead breached the
Geneva Agreements of 1954 by dispatching two Army helicopter companies to
shore up Diem's faltering army. Ignoring the advice of the CIA and the
military that it would take at least 200,000 U.S. combat soldiers to
prevail in Vietnam, Kennedy supposed that the charismatic derring-do of
U.S. Special Forces ("In Knute Rockne's old phrase," Walt Rostow advised
Kennedy, "we are not saving them for the junior prom"), acting with the
South Vietnamese, would keep Vietnam from falling and thus costing him
re-election in 1964, beyond which his strategic thinking on Vietnam did not
"I can't do it until 1965 -- after I'm re-elected," he told Senate
Majority Leader Mike Mansfield in the spring of 1963, the "it" being
withdraw from Vietnam, which, Kennedy said, Mansfield's analysis convinced
him must be done. To his credit, Kennedy had dispatched Mansfield to
Vietnam for a skeptical assessment. Warning that Vietnam was fast becoming
an "American war" whose further intensification "could involve an
expenditure of American lives and resources on a scale which would bear
little relationship to the interest of the United States," Mansfield's
widely publicized report offered Kennedy yet another chance to change
course. But a conservative outcry over withdrawal might cost him
re-election, and that came first.
Harriman's advice in 1961 was Kennedy's
first clear chance to change history; Mansfield's report in early 1963 was
his second. The third and last came in the summer of 1963. As the Asia
specialist George McT. Kahin argued in his definitive Intervention: How
America Became Involved in Vietnam (1986), the Catholic-dominated Diem
regime's brutal suppression of South Vietnam's Buddhists, over which monks
immolated themselves in protest, offered Kennedy "a face-saving and
domestically defensible way out of Vietnam." Press and television accounts
crystallized "public criticism of America's Vietnamese ward . . .
providing Kennedy with an avenue for disengagement that risked considerably
less domestic political damage than ever before." Instead Kennedy chose to
increase U.S. involvement in Vietnam beyond the point of no return by
By the summer of 1963 Diem was wearying of his American
protectors. The huge increase in the U.S. advisory role under Kennedy was
eroding his nationalist support. There were indications that he was
preparing to ask the United States to leave pursuant to his acceptance of a
Laos-like neutralization of Vietnam. His brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, the most
powerful figure in his government after Diem himself, was even discussing
the possibility of seeking negotiations with both the South Vietnamese
Communist (NLF) rebels and their suppliers in North Vietnam. In a
mid-August broadcast interview with an Australian journalist, Ho Chi Minh
himself said that with the withdrawal of the Americans a ceasefire could be
negotiated between Diem and the NLF. None of this was hidden from Kennedy.
The government we had propped up for eight years wanted us out. It was
even feared that a U.S. ultimatum to Diem to remove his irretrievably
tainted brother might, as Secretary of State Rusk cabled to U.S. Ambassador
Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. in Saigon, provoke Diem into asking Ho to help him
throw the Americans out. Made public, this would have been unacceptably
embarrassing for Kennedy and his advisers. Diem had to go.
"encouragement," to use no stronger word, of the military coup that broke
out on November 1, 1963, and that cost Diem his life, made the United
States responsible for the succession of freebooters who came after Diem.
As Mike Mansfield had warned, it made Vietnam an "American war." In this
context, of the two assassinations that terrible November, Diem's may have
been the more consequential.
Always conscious of the looking glass of
history, JFK had reason to fear the verdict of this generation of
historians -- whose work James Patterson's Grand Expectations brings to a
fair, judicious, and yet decisive synthesis.
Illustration by Istvan Banyai
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1996; A Magisterial History; Volume 278,
pages 107 - 112.