Somme: Into the Breach, by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore (Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard, 607 pp., $35.00).  This book is a superlative history of the Battle of the Somme between July 1 and November 18, 1916, by the author of Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man.  Sebag-Montefiore’s masterly account of the engagement that claimed more than a million men dead or wounded on both sides draws upon such primary sources as the diaries, letters, and dispatches of the participants, from the highest military levels down to the least and greenest men in the trenches—a battle of four-and-a-half months in which the extreme heroism on the part of the British and German combatants was tragically offset by the miscalculations and other mistakes made by the commanding officers, and the politicians standing behind them.  Somme is epic history, effectively combining the sweeping broader narrative with the detailed presentation of its subordinate and incidental parts, while maintaining a focus throughout on the persons and personalities involved.  Sebag-Montefiore is British, yet his presentation of the Battle of the Somme as it was experienced by the German army is no less empathetic and human than when the author is recounting the sufferings on the British front.  Indeed, he functions as a sort of shocked benevolent overseeing presence, or witness to the catastrophe.  After the first hundred pages or so, I found I had to put the book aside for a couple of days before reading on.  Somme is, without a doubt, the most harrowing war account I have ever read, including Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy.  It is a great work; as indispensable to military historians and Europeanists as John Lukacs thinks Dunkirk is.

Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B. Johnson, the Great Society, and the Limits of Liberalism, by Randall B. Woods (Basic Books: New York, 461 pp., $32.00).  Professor Woods argues that Johnson’s Great Society program should be understood as “another chapter in the story of reform in twentieth-century America,” at once a continuation and extension of Bryan’s Populism, Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressivism, and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.  These movements aimed at giving the American citizen material and financial security.  The Great Society went beyond that more or less achieved goal, according to Woods, by pressing for greater “opportunity and labor force participation,” by expanding the meaning of citizenship, and by extending it to a great many more people.  Woods denies that it represented a program of “creeping socialism,” since it never challenged capitalist economics and did not result in a welfare state in the European style.  For that reason, he says, conservative critics have always misrepresented both its aims and its accomplishments.  On the other hand, he concedes that “the reforms constituted a massive expansion of federal power, unprecedented encroachment on the private sphere, and extensive interference with state and local government.”  Woods writes approvingly that Johnson, like the first Roosevelt, believed that modern industrial democracy demands Hamiltonian means to attain Jeffersonian ends, though he is alive to what he calls “a dilemma common to utopian reformers”: the danger that social engineering offers to individual initiative and individual freedom.  Yet Johnson, he says, was less interested in the redistribution of the national wealth than in giving poor people the political and educational means the better to compete in society.  The Great Society, Woods concludes, foundered on its attempts at nation-building abroad, which fared considerably less well than at home, and on the domestic opposition they provoked; on urban rioting, blamed by conservatives on a sense of entitlement produced by liberal reforms; and on the resulting “War on Crime,” which he considers a significant part of the conservative War on the Great Society.  “Of course, what delivered the coup de grâce to the Johnsonian consensus were classical economics and the American public’s aversion to high taxes.”  Lastly, that consensus was done in by the President’s authorization of highly illiberal (in theory, that is) intelligence operations against all sorts of people (antiwar students, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, ghetto dwellers, the Kennedys), all of them intended to ensure his own election in 1964 and to maintain both the Great Society programs and the Vietnam War.

In the end, though, Woods concludes, “The fires of the 1960s may have burned the liberals’ house to the ground, but when the smoke cleared its foundation—the Great Society—was intact.”

I am still pondering the following sentence, at the bottom of the second to last page of the book, where Woods writes, “The 1965 [immigration] act did not address the problem of illegal immigrants—the right of the undocumented to enter the country and their treatment when and if they did.”  Perhaps that bit of unfinished business simply reflects the fact that Lyndon Johnson, the old border-state lawyer, would not have understood what this modern Democrat was talking about.    

Chilton Williamson, Jr.