American opener

THIS 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 won a Pulitzer Prize; the other, Robert Middlekauff's 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.

I 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 History at 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 truth.

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 volumes.

3) An eye for unbeatable contemporary quotations.

  • Of Thomas E. Dewey's vapidity in 1948 the Louisville Courier-Journal observed,
    No 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 altogether."
  • 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 task."

    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.
    We 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.

    5) 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.

    [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.
    Note the concession to fairness represented by "almost."

    IF 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 nuclear war.

    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.

    FINALLY, 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 indeed.

    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 go.

    "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 removing Diem.

    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.

    Kennedy's "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

    The Atlantic Monthly; September 1996; A Magisterial History; Volume 278, No. 3; pages 107 - 112.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to