While absolving then-President Herbert Hoover of responsibility for the events that precipitated the Great Depression, and while acknowledging the myriad forces that collectively shaped human history during the years covered, David M. Kennedy’s nonfiction study of American economic and political history from the Great Depression through the Second World War, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, represents what has often been referred to as “the Great Man theory” of history. A term that dates to 19th Century Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, and which refers to the dominant influence on world history of the decisions of individual statesmen, like presidents, prime ministers and autocratic dictators, the Great Man theory of history has been accused of minimizing or ignoring the contributions of additional forces like nature, social and economic factors that shaped environments and personalities. This is mentioned as a necessary precursor to any discussion of the main theme of Kennedy’s 1999 history. Kennedy’s study emphasizes the roles of Hoover and, more importantly, his successor in the White House, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in shaping the forces that lifted the United States out of the depths of the Great Depression and that prepared the American public for the extraordinarily rigors that would be associated with the coming conflict in Europe.
Kennedy’s history details the enormously elevated role the federal government would play in the everyday lives of Americans as a result of Roosevelt’s New Deal even while suggesting that this vast series of federal programs was only marginally responsible for the end of the depression. From the perspective of a social and economic history of the United States, Kennedy advances the notion that the major contribution of the New Deal lied less in its importance in pulling the U.S. out of the depression and more in institutionalizing that vastly expanded role of the government in the nation’s daily lives. As he concluded his discussion of Roosevelt’s economic program, “And ever after, Americans assumed that the federal government had not merely a role, but a major responsibility, in ensuring the health of the economy and the welfare of the citizens.”
The second half of Freedom from Fear focuses on World War II, and it is here where Kennedy expands his focus from that of Roosevelt to include the considerable roles of Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, as well as the contributions of lesser but still significant figures like Charles de Gaulle. Additionally, the exigencies of waging a global war, Kennedy acknowledges, required the emergence of prominent personalities like those of Generals Douglas MacArthur, Omar Bradley, and George Marshall and Admirals Nimitz, Halsey, Spruance and others, all of whom played significant roles in the prosecution of the war against Germany and Japan. Kennedy’s theme, that the predominant influence of personalities in shaping events, is a little weakened by the entrance of so many additional figures, but that does not lessen the value of his text.