His writing comprises its own kind of time capsule: a contemporaneous history of the events and developments of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He described the experience of owning a personal computer when most people still didn’t, covered the Vietnam War origins of the guns now at the center of domestic gun-control debates, and questioned the merits of Reagan-era military spending as the Cold War drew to an end. His insight, extensive reporting, and engaging writing have made his articles essential reading in their moments of publication and have lent them a timeless relevance, and resonance.
These eight pieces, written over the course of Fallows’s Atlantic career, offer a glimpse of what the American Academy of Arts and Sciences honored today.
“The Passionless Presidency”
In the last year of Carter’s administration, Fallows assessed where the president had gone wrong. “After two and a half years in Carter’s service,” he wrote. “I fully believe him to be a good man.” But he observed that Carter lacked “the passion to convert himself from a good man into an effective one, to learn how to do the job.” As a result, he wrote, Carter’s achievements failed to live up to his intentions.
“Living With a Computer”
The first successful personal-computer models were released to consumers in the mid-1970s; Fallows got his at the end of that decade, and wrote about it for The Atlantic three years later. He described both how the machine had improved his writing and editing process and the new distractions and dangers it posed before making specific recommendations to readers. “I’d sell my computer before I’d sell my children,” he wrote. “But the kids better watch their step.”
“Immigration: How It’s Affecting Us”
Following the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act amendments, which lifted quotas governing immigrant nationalities, the flow of immigrants into the United States from the developing world increased significantly. With the rise in newcomers came a rise in anti-immigrant sentiments—sentiments that Fallows challenged in this 1983 article. “In countless ... places … the words heard in the air, the clothes and faces seen on the street, the courses taught in the schools, have all changed because of immigration,” he wrote. “But it is far from clear to me that the changes under way are ominous or bad.”
“How the World Works”
The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s was celebrated as a victory for the laissez-faire capitalism championed by Americans. But in 1993, Fallows explored alternate approaches driving growth in economies around the world—and the ways they echoed moments from the history of the United States. “Every country that has caught up with others has had to do so by rigging its rules: extracting extra money from its people and steering the money into industrialists’ hands,” he asserted.