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American Empire

A probing look at the developments that set the stage for America's rise to global dominance since World War II.

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Review by Sanford Levinson

The title itself suggests the vast scope of this book, part of a new Penguin History of the United States. In less than 600 pages, Freeman efficiently and illuminatingly describes and analyzes the history of the United States over a fifty-five year period of often remarkable change. The book is divided into four sections with titles that capture Freeman’s central themes: “Pax Americana (1945-1953)”; “The High Tide of Liberal Democracy (1954-1974)”; “The Resurrection of Corporate Capitalism (1975-1989)”; and “The New World Order (1990-2000).” A brief afterword on post-9/11 America follows.

Freeman inevitably touches on the various presidencies throughout this period, but the book does not focus on “political history.” Politics always occurs within wider contexts, both domestic and foreign, and he does a good job of setting them out. Although there is not a traditional table in the book, Freeman does an especially effective job of providing telling statistics.

Thus a writer who traversed the 3,091 miles of then-U.S. 40 shortly after World War II noted that its single busiest stretch, in Delaware, saw an average of 22,688 cars/day; one could wait an average of more than three minutes at the Kansas-Colorado border before seeing a single car go by. To put it mildly, we do not live in that United States anymore, not least because of President Eisenhower’s insistence, partly on grounds of national security, that the United States begin building the modern interstate highway system that relegated U.S. 40 or the legendary Route 66  to the byways of history. As Freeman notes, whatever consequences the highway system might have had for national defense, it fundamentally changed America in many respects, including, most obviously, creating the rise of suburbs from which workers could easily commute to the cities that were steadily losing especially their white populations. The roads also help to explain why by 1969 there was one car for every three Americans, in contrast, to Great Britain’s one car for nine people or Italy’s one for twenty-five. It is no coincidence that On the Road was an iconic novel of the 1950s.

When analyzing the War in Vietnam, which fractured, perhaps irrevocably, the “can-do” spirit of post-War America, Freeman notes that whereas 39 percent of the U.S. armed forces in World War II were combat troops, only 14 percent of those in Vietnam in 1967 were. The remainder were support forces. This helps to explain why a seemingly vastly outnumbered Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces were able to defeat the American forces; in fact, the actual numbers of combatants were closer in number than appeared to be the case.

He is especially interesting on the degree to which Ronald Reagan, who quoted Tom Paine in his inaugural address, was scarcely a typical conservative. Given the scope of the book, no short review can do it justice. However, even readers of an age to remember many of the developments being discussed will profit, let alone younger readers for whom the 1970s and ‘80s, let alone the immediate post-War period, are indeed “history.”

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Sanford Levinson is W. St. John Garwood and W. St. John Garwood, Jr. Regents Chair in Law at the University of Texas. He is the author of The American Supreme Court, Legal Canons, and Constitutional Faith.

  • SKU: 000000000001358936
  • Author: Joshua Benjamin Freeman
  • Publisher: VIKING PENGUIN/DIV OF PENGUIN PUTNA
  • Release date: Aug 1, 2012
  • ISBN: 9780670023783
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Commitment Credit: 1
  • Book Search Plus: No
  • Warnings: No warnings
  • Height: 1.360
  • Length: 9.250
  • Width: 6.125

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