Monday, July 18, 2011


A review of James T. Patterson's Grand Expectations: The United States 1945-1974 (1996)

Part of the Oxford History of the United States Series

(Rating 4 of 5)

My march through the ages has me now arriving at James T. Patterson's Grand Expectations, covering an era where my grandparents were building their families and my parents were kids. Since this book is about the recent past it is far more tangible than anything I have read so far. It begins in the world where America—with her allies—had just one World War II. Everything seemed so perfect for America was all-powerful, the world's most free nation that had just freed the world, the reforms of the New Deal will protected us from another Great Depression, and science would soon cure everything.

Very soon however the American people were about to learn that they were far from invincible, several members of their nation's minority populations were not free, and the nation had some tough times ahead. This was not entirely a bad thing for although grand expectations* had led to some great disappointments those disappointments led to people great and small to take actions to make things better. At the beginning of this book half the nation is still legally segregated and the opportunities for minorities and women were extremely limited, at the end legal segregation was dead and things in America had changed greatly for those oppressed peoples. The battle for equality was far from over but things were very different.

Like the rest of the series this book covers America from various directions. It looks at the top from the various administrations of Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. It explores things from the point of view of civil rights leaders such as Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Medgar Evers. The book even takes a look at some of the more extreme activists such as Malcolm X, who was for most of his career a black nationalists and not a believer in equality. The book examines at the sixties counterculture and the famous concert at Woodstock. It also covers the average Americans who were just trying to get along with their lives and who really enjoyed the show 'All in the Family.'

(President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie)

(President Johnson sworn in after assassination)

(Controversial civil rights leader Malcolm X)

“No performer aroused more alarm than Elvis Presley. Elvis, twenty years old in 1955, was the son of poor Mississippi farm folk who had moved into public housing in Memphis when he was fourteen. HE pomaded his hair and idolized Brando and Dean, whose Rebel Without a Cause he saw at least of dozen times and whose lines he could recite from memory. Presley learned to sing and play guitar while performing with local groups, often with people from his Assembly of God congregation. In 1954, he recorded 'That's All Right' and a few other songs, mainly in the blues and country traditions, thereby exciting Sam Phillips, a local loved black music and had recorded such musicians as B.B. King earlier in the 1950s. But the color line barred them from fame. 'If I could find a white man with a Negro sound,' Phillips is reputed to have said, 'I could make a billion dollars.'” (p.372)

(Rock icon Elvis Presley)

“The civil rights act was nonetheless a significant piece of legislation, far and away the most important in the history of American race relations. Quickly upheld by the Supreme Court, it was enforced with vigor by the State, for there were many thousands of hospitals, school districts, and colleges and universities affected by provisions of the law. Although many southern leaders resisted, most aspects of enforcement proved effective in time, and the seemingly impregnable barriers of Jim Crow finally begin to fall. Black people at last could begin to enjoy equal access to thousands of places that had excluded them in the past. Few laws have such dramatic and heart-warming effects.”(p.546)

There are some parts of the book I am very critical of. The book lacks a type of poetic feel that was present in previous volumes such as Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty and David Kennedy's Freedom From Fear. Also often this book strongly leans to the negative. I am not saying one should not be critical when need be, for example there are several sections in David Walker Howe's What Hath Good Wrote that are very critical at times but nevertheless has a strong sense of wonder. This book very much lacks that at times. The moon landing is barely covered. For thousands of years humans had look at the moon and often worshiped it, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went out and walked on it, and Patterson strongest stance on the matter is: it did not give us as much scientific information than we would have liked. While criticizing President Kennedy's foreign policy—again, nothing wrong with criticizing, especially the Bay of the Pigs disaster—he reduces the entire Peace Corps to just a single sentence. He also feels at times he needs to say something critical every time he says something positive. When discussing Cuban Missile Crisis he feels he needs to balance the positive view of Kennedy's handling of the event view with a more critical one, despite the fact that the critical view's argument is extremely weak. In some ways Patterson's seems to be so caught up in the era's disappointments to appreciative its wonder.

(Moon Landing)

I still highly recommend this book it is very insightful look into to how America was and the American people themselves at the end of World War II to how disappointed they were after the disastrous Vietnam War and the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union chilled the air for the entire era as the nation that though it could to anything had to learn its limits. America in this era was a nation of high hopes and great disappointments.

*If the reader was given a hundred dollars every time the words 'grand expectations' came up the reader would probably finish with a few thousand dollars.

{Video is of JFK's Cuban Missile Crisis speech and MLK's 'I have a dream speech.'}

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