“The United States of America—the greatest potential force, material, moral, and spiritual, in the world.”
—G. Lowes Dickinson
For Paul Johnson, American history was a non-subject in his days at Oxford and its School of Modern History in the 1940’s. “Nothing was said of America, except insofar as it lay on the margins of English history,” Johnson writes. “I do not recall any course of lectures on American history, as such.” This, as it turned out, was actually to his advantage. “As a result of this lacuna in my education, I eventually came to American history completely fresh, with no schoolboy or student prejudices or antipathies.”
His critics will say he has picked up quite a few in the ensuing years, but let that ride. The question one must ask is: Has this highly opinionated Englishman contributed to Americans’ understanding of their history? The answer is yes, with a few reservations. A greater question might be whether Americans will appreciate his judgments, and here I think the odds are only so-so since we, as a people, are plainly in the process of deAmericanizing ourselves and our institutions. Johnson, while viewing this phenomenon with concern, nevertheless concludes his book on an optimistic note: he is betting that the American people, ultimately, will arrest their long free fall. I am not so sure.
What, really, makes someone an American? For most of the country’s recent history, at least, citizenship was the defining element: you take the oath, you become an American. (An interesting curiosity, however, is that native-born Americans, as opposed to Native Americans, continue to identify themselves as Californians, Virginians, Kansans, New Englanders, Westerners, or Southerners first, and as Americans second—proof that the country remains less a “nation” than a federation of states and regions, each with its own cultural, geographic, and economic peculiarities.) Today, however, one can be a “hyphenated American” without, in fact, being an American at all. The test is in getting over the border by whatever means possible, and the U.S. Constitution, as it has been interpreted of late, takes over from there, conferring on you almost unlimited protections and benefits, including the right to vote. We are in danger of hyphenating away our nationhood, while the political pandering to the hyphenates themselves risks undoing the 400 years of nation-building and nationhood Johnson celebrates.
Worse, it risks destroying our ability to develop a coherent foreign policy in the country’s interest at a time when we find ourselves the world’s only superpower, and too often the world’s policeman. In the post-World War II era, this liability has manifested itself primarily in Washington’s unquestioned support of Israel—a policy that is currently being modified by the power of the growing Arab- and Islamic-American lobby. The national interest is additionally compromised by the Irish-American lobby, by Cuban-American enemies of Fidel Castro, by Chinese-Americans fighting a diplomatic war of liberation from American soil, and by aggressive Mexican- Americans seeking to replace Anglo- American culture with their own, “Hispanic” one. Assimilation, on the other hand, is usually a no-win proposition. Take the Serbs, a people who have been in America in large numbers for more than a century and who, despite their continued adherence to Orthodox Christianity, have gladly thrown themselves into the melting pot. Marginalized in the debate concerning American policy in the Balkans, they must endure daily the depiction of their people as racist murderers and rapists. Palestinian- Americans, having spent years assimilating before challenging finally America’s reflexive support of Israel, know the feeling. So do German-Americans, Japanese-Americans, and others who, having committed themselves to the assimilationist ideal, found themselves at one time or another on the wrong side of American foreign policy or national security aims. Yet the assimilation of diverse populations, to the extent that it really occurred, made America and its people what they are today, as Johnson points out. “I do not acknowledge the existence of hyphenated Americans, or Native Americans or any other qualified kind,” he writes. “They are all Americans to me: black, white, red, brown, yellow, thrown together by fate in that swirling maelstrom of history which has produced the most remarkable people the world has ever seen.” The problem here is that Johnson’s spirit of tolerant acceptance is completely at odds with the American political and cultural elite’s determination to impose policies exacerbating racial, ethnic, and religious tensions in the name of cultural diversity, as well as, increasingly, with the attitude of the new Americans themselves.
Johnson is ruthless in his condemnation of political correctness and its allied sins. And he gives no quarter in condemning organized religion’s surrender, in the face of a frontal assault on the part of government and the courts, of its moral authority. Still, a recurring (touchingly naive) theme throughout his long narrative is that, our present difficulties of nationhood notwithstanding, American history has been always thus: an epic battle in which the forces of good overcome the forces of evil, which not by coincidence arise—usually—from within, hi Johnson’s view, the United States achieved its remarkable accomplishments not because it was the country’s destiny to do so but because it was a work in progress by a people who were left to solve their own, often brutally difficult problems in a way that would benefit the greatest number of them in the end.
Johnson describes effectively America’s long collision course in respect of chattel slavery, and how the subject still tugs at the nation’s conscience today. He is even better on the mistreatment of the indigenous Indian tribes which, contrary to myth, belongs not to the period of the country’s western expansion, but its southeastern push in the early days of independence. Here, an entire region was opened to European settlement—and the expansion of the Peculiar Institution —by means of what we now call “ethnic cleansing”: the forced resettlement of entire Indian nations to the sparse and untamed West. After this, the Indian question did not need to be dealt with again until decades later when, the issue of slavery having been settled in blood and the Union preserved, a restless population and new European immigrants sought greener pastures. By then —as now—the Trail of Tears was largely forgotten. The Western tribes, by contrast, even though many had also to endure relocation or sign treaties forcing them onto reservations, eventually won recognifion of their sovereignty.
Readers of Johnson’s previous works, including Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties and The Birth of the Modem: World Society, 1815-1830, will easily recognize variations on themes first raised in those books. In spite of this elaboration, however, and the use of material first researched for the author’s histories of Christianity and the Jews, there remains much to harvest. Even at more than 1,000 pages, A History of the American People takes too many shortcuts, particularly when Johnson gets to those definitive points in the development of America’s nationhood: the Civil War, and World War I and II. Concerning the Civil War especially I find that a shame. A tremendous body of literature exists on the complexities leading up to that horrific conflict, and regarding it: to rush through it all seems a waste of this author’s considerable talents and energies. The same can be said of Johnson’s treatment of World War II and its aftermath, which also seems incomplete and unfulfilled.
The richness of the book, however, is to be found in the interpretation of everyday events that shaped the nation’s character and destiny. Johnson defends some of the Robber Barons (most of whom ended up donating a good deal of their fortunes to the American people in the form of foundations, libraries, and art galleries, and their estates preserved as part of the nation’s historic trust), but what he really celebrates is the scope America once gave its citizens for titanic endeavor and achievement. He raises the need to reinterpret the administrations of “failed” presidencies, such as those of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, not because the assessments of them have been so bleak but because they were made so wrongly, with deliberate intent. (The debunking of the Camelot myth surrounding the administration of John F. Kennedy is a case of Johnson applying his formula in reverse, to even more convincing effect.) For Johnson, America really has been a land of opportunity—for exploiters, con artists, and other assorted hucksters and evildoers of the type Mark Twain captured so perfectly, as well as for honest hardworking men, the two groups combining to create not just a country but a history of truly epic proportions. As for Johnson’s belief that a problem-solving people will keep moving onward and ever upward—well, we will just have to see.
[A History of the American People, by Paul Johnson (New York: HarperCollins) 1088 pp., $35.00]
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