World War II transformed American life, and Americans knew it. The war brought suffering and sacrifice to untold thousands of homes. It also brought excitement and adventure. This war, no more than any other social phenomenon, could not bring complete harmony to the racially and ethnically divided American people. Yet it did seem to inspire more fellow feeling than Americans had known for many years. Before the war, the United States had been mired in a decade of economic depression. Millions of lives had been scarred by want and blighted opportunities. The war changed all that. Americans enjoyed full employment. Women flocked into jobs left vacant by men enrolled in the military. African Americans found doors beginning to open for them as well. People had money in their pockets, and not enough consumer goods to spend it on. The war also heralded the end of the American tradition of isolation from world affairs. The “mistakes” of 1919-1920 would not be repeated when this war ended. A people increasingly encouraged to think in terms of “one world” was prepared to embrace the new vision of collective security. The United States, the great “Arsenal of Democracy,” the only power largely untouched by wartime destruction, seemed destined to play a leading role in the emerging world order. For most Americans, the dropping of the atomic bombs in August, 1945, confirmed rather than caused America’s global dominance.
The potent social forces and human energies released by World War II raised Americans’ expectations for the future. To a remarkable extent, these expectations would be met in the postwar years. For the quarter century following 1945, the United States would experience an extraordinary prosperity. At its height, Americans would produce 57 percent of the world’s steel, 62 percent of the oil, and 80 percent of its automobiles. The United States would control three-fourths of the world’s gold supply. At the same time, Americans grew accustomed to the responsibilities of international leadership and habituated to wielding their power in far corners of the earth.
James Patterson’s Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 is an illuminating exploration of the legacy of World War II. He traces the ways in which war-engendered confidence and optimism marked American life for decades. He provides a compelling account of an exuberant period in American history, when dreams of an “American Century” seemed quite tangible, and a “Great Society” appeared a project just within grasp.
Patterson’s book is the third study to appear in a projected eleven-volume history of the United States published by Oxford University Press. This series will be a magisterial account of American history, summarizing the best of American historical scholarship at the end of the twentieth century. The two previously published volumes in the series have lived up to anticipations. Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 (1982) won a number of prizes. James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988) received a Pulitzer Prize for history. Patterson’s Grand Expectations holds its own in such company.
Patterson’s decision to make the heightened expectations of the American people in the postwar era the organizing theme of his work succeeds admirably. His invocation of Grand Expectationsworks on several levels. The simplicity bestows an enlightening clarity on a cacophonous period in American history. By eschewing the temptation of oversubtle or ingenious interpretations of his material, Patterson sacrifices some originality of presentation, but gains an impressive degree of explanatory force. This is possible because the theme of rising expectations genuinely fits the facts. A sense of possibility, and a high-spirited impatience with limits, lay near the heart of the great trends of the postwar years. As Patterson points out, the generous G.I. Bill passed during World War II to provide for the conflict’s veterans set the stage for a “rights revolution” in the United States, in which the benefits of an affluent society blurred imperceptibly into entitlements. So profound a social movement as the civil rights struggle of the 1950’s and 1960’s was born of the gains made during the war, but fueled by an aching consciousness of the gap between practice and possibility for African Americans in the United States. The vaunting ambitions of American statesmen in these same years, both in domestic and foreign policy, was nourished by the conviction that the United States was wealthy enough to support any initiative, whether a “New Frontier” or a “Great Society.”
Finally, Patterson’s theme gives his narrative a powerful moral force, albeit of a peculiarly traditional sort. His tale of American presumption enables him to rework the conventions of classical Greek tragedy, in which the hero is laid low by hubris. Yet Patterson’s is an American tragedy. For him it is innocence which is tainted by pride, and it is the “city upon a hill” which lies elusive, ultimately beyond the vision, if not the aspiration, of his flawed protagonists. Indeed, Patterson is haunted by what might have been, had not the bounty of the postwar era been betrayed by...
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