Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1892
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...
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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 they were the most controversial. They paid for their alleged crimes with their lives, while others escaped with prison sentences, deportation, lost jobs, ruined reputations, and other serious inflictions. Perrett believes Julius Rosenberg was guilty of atomic espionage, although he admits that the trial was highly emotional and the judge fanatical in his belief that the Rosenbergs were responsible for the fifty thousand American casualties in Korea. The stage was set for Senator Joe McCarthy.
The Red Scare did not start in the 1950’s, but it reached its most virulent form during these years. Perrett covers the topic in some depth in a chapter aptly entitled “The Long Night of McCarthyism.” The crusade was marked by mistakes, stupidities, and a vindictiveness that ruined many lives. For the author, it was “a dreary, silly business.” Offsetting such activity, however, were technological innovations that enriched peoples’ lives, such as television, FM radio, and new Hollywood film styles. Not that the entertainment industry was immune from the purges, for blacklisting was widespread and content was heavily influenced by Cold War propaganda. There then emerged on the scene a sober, immensely popular war hero, Dwight Eisenhower, to lead the Republican Party and the country into an era of optimism and security. Perrett has nothing but praise for Ike, whose two terms in office were characterized by peace and prosperity. He ended the fighting in Korea and supported the attack on Joe McCarthy. The fading away of the Red Scare by mid-decade demonstrated, to Perrett, that in the end Americans were committed to the defense of democratic freedoms. Many suffered, but the country survived, only to find itself pervaded by conformity—in thought, in dress, and in almost every other area. “This blandness, eschewing strong preferences, avoiding sharp differences of belief, was part of the tepid lake of conformity which appeared to seep in everywhere,” Perrett writes. He constantly attempts to balance the virtues of American democracy with its obvious liabilities in this period. Life was good, if not great.
Trying to capture the diversity of life in the 1950’s, Perrett discusses a broad range of topics: rock and roll music, teenage rebels, Beat life, organized crime, race relations, the start of the civil rights movement marked by the Brown v. Board of Education case, the Montgomery bus boycott, the emergence of the Reverend Martin Luther King, religion, the space race, public schooling and the expansion of higher education, art, business, unions, farmers, and foreign policy—on all of which he has personal views and comments. The country, like its President, had more problems than necessary, but less than many believed. The country was ripe, however, for energetic new leadership, and it got it by a squeak.
For Perrett, John E Kennedy was more style than substance, just the reverse of Eisenhower. Surrounding himself with young, vigorous advisers, including his brother Robert, the President was nevertheless quite conservative, and he made many blunders, including the Cuban invasion. Despite his reluctance to change society, the country was discovering that serious problems existed, such as poverty, discrimination, and decaying cities. Kennedy grudgingly reacted, pushed by grassroots organizing, particularly among civil rights workers in the South. He supported new civil rights legislation. Throughout the country there was an awakening, the stirrings of a women’s movement, growing radicalism among college students who protested the Cold War, HUAC, and injustice. In the midst of these activities, Kennedy brought the country to the brink of war in order to force Russian missiles out of Cuba. Perrett agrees with those who see this as an excessive response that could have destroyed the country, “but the Kennedy Administration knew no other style.” His increasing aid to the faltering government in South Vietnam was equally misguided. He blundered, but also represented the last vestiges of American optimism. With his death in late 1963, Perrett concludes, “Americans reeled toward the future, instead of reaching out to seize it.”
In his broad, sweeping account of American life between World War II and the death of John F. Kennedy, Perrett reveals the country’s warts as well as its virtues. He concludes, however, that “out of the restless energy, the revival of optimism and self confidence, arose countless opportunities for expansive, generous, brave spirits to express themselves freely.” The period produced great men, such as Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, that have not been matched since. An open society survived despite McCarthyism. Such interpretations seem to contradict much of the book’s evidence and certainly a large amount of recent scholarship. The problem was not that American society was bland, but that it was perhaps continuing to cause more problems than it was solving because of the needs of American capitalism and the general conservative temper of the ruling elites. Take, for example, the country’s foreign policy. It was not just anti-Communist, it was aggressively interventionist even before Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco. Perrett completely ignores the CIA-led coup in Iran that restored the Shah to power in 1953 and the CIA’s other secret activities throughout the world that are only now coming to light. He glosses over our shortsighted China policy and substantial intervention in South Vietnam antedating the French defeat in 1954 and continuing throughout the decade. Also there is little in the book about United States intervention in the affairs of Latin American countries in the name of supporting American business interests. Indeed, the needs of American corporations dictated much of American foreign policy, an interpretation that Perrett ignores in his haste to emphasize the democratic motives of the country’s leaders.
Similar problems affect the author’s interpretation of social and cultural activities. Perrett points out the deadening influence of the anti-Communist crusade on arts and culture, but he does not seem to comprehend the scope of the problem. Some have argued that film, literature, drama, and other aspects of the arts were dealt a staggering blow by the purges and blacklists, set back years because so much creative talent was obliterated. This was true in many other aspects of life as well. There were voices of dissent throughout the decade, but they were muted, only to reappear with a vengeance in the 1960’s. Perrett does not adequately explain why this resurgence occurred, other than somehow attributing it to Kennedy; but there was more to it than this.
Perrett has written a widely ranging history of a crucial period in American history, a period too long ignored. However, by intermixing the trivial and the important, and giving so many opinions about so many events, individuals, trends, and activities, the reader often gets lost. More seriously, by generally painting a rosy glow over the period, he misses much that was harmful and dangerous, despite his periodic criticisms. A more critical eye would have explored the connections between the military-industrial-political complex that Eisenhower warned the country about, and how these connections controlled both domestic and foreign policy. This is a rich, yet ultimately flawed, work.