Geoffrey Perrett is an energetic researcher and writer. The present work is a sequel to his comprehensive Days of Sadness, Years of Triumph: The American People, 1939-1945 (1973), which tried to capture the complexity and scope of life in the country during World War II. A Dream of Greatness is even larger and more ambitious, almost nine hundred pages of information, anecdotes, character sketches, and opinions about a period that is considered fairly dull and barren and commonly viewed through a haze of nostalgia. Perrett, however, argues that these were particularly exciting years, a time when Americans believed they were destined for “greatness.” This was not a time when there were “the bland leading the bland,” but rather when “America represented, to the ordinary people at home and overseas, vigor and daring—thinking big, acting big.”
Americans emerged from World War II full of hope, but were soon faced with staggering problems—economic dislocations, unemployment, labor unrest and strikes, inflation—and a conservative mood in Washington. President Harry Truman, a complex man admired by Perrett, was unable to extend New Deal programs. While the author devotes some space to such traditional topics, he is more interested in the state of public schooling (he criticizes the Life Adjustment curriculum for its antiintellectualism), the expansion of higher education, the growth of suburbs, the expansion of consumer spending, and changing dress styles. After the sacrifices and hardships of the previous decade and a half, Americans were eager to spend their money. They were not so eager to confront social and economic problems. Blacks faced extreme segregation and hostility in the South and North, despite the war’s democratic rhetoric and President Truman’s limp attempts to promote racial equality, such as desegregating the military in 1948. This is an example of Perrett’s style, alternating descriptions of optimistic and positive aspects of society with others that reveal the nagging persistence or creation of serious problems.
Against the background of domestic stresses and strains, Perrett develops the unfolding of the Cold War. While historians have been arguing about whether the United States or the Soviet Union was most responsible for increasing world tensions, the author comes down on the side of the former, simplifying in the process the meaning of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, both aimed at halting Communism in Europe. The attack on Communism abroad was matched by an internal crusade, led by the President, to purge the country of supposed subversives. This is another topic that has fascinated historians in recent years as it has become more and more evident that Senator Joe McCarthy did not initiate the Red Scare that has since carried his name. He was preceded by union leaders, right-wing Congressmen in the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (such as Richard Nixon), and many others. Many people were queried and punished, including Alger Hiss. Perrett defends Hiss, while believing that he acted somewhat foolishly. Truman’s established procedures for screening government employees resulted in the dismissal of two thousand civilian employees, innocent victims of the country’s fears, as Perrett readily admits.
While most of the country was moving in a conservative direction, there were a handful going against the tide. Former Vice-President Henry Wallace and a small group of mavericks organized the Progressive Party in 1948 to offer a left alternative to the nation. Perrett is most critical of the party, “a doomed cause,” for not purging its Communist supporters and in general being too weak and divided to do much good except help the Republicans by taking votes from Truman. The Democrats’ acceptance of a civil rights plank in the platform also alienated a large chunk of Southerners, who broke off to form the States Rights Party. However, Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate, was unable to parlay these disaffections into a victory, for the small turnout of voters gave Truman an upset. The President’s second administration was as rocky as the first. 1949 was not a good year, the Soviet explosion of an atomic bomb being followed by a Communist victory in China, the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June, 1950, and the arrest of nine accused spies, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the previous month. In this climate, Truman’s liberal domestic programs got nowhere, and anti-Communist hysteria became more shrill. The Rosenbergs were not alone, by far, in being caught in Washington’s far-flung anti-Communist net, but...
(The entire section is 1892 words.)