World War I’s greatest legacy may have been the collapse of the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires, but World War II’s greatest legacy may have been the creation of the American empire. It was, to be sure, a reluctant empire, sometimes restrained, different in nature and ambitions from its pre-World War I precursors and the great ones of yore, the British, French, and Spanish, which collected colonies and planted institutions across the globe.
But in “American Empire,’’ Joshua B. Freeman’s ambitious and imaginative history of the second half of the 20th century, the United States emerges as an empire with a character all its own — modern, often subtle, but unmistakably powerful.
“[T]hrough treaties and alliances, investment and trade, Coca-Cola and rock and roll, Peace Corps volunteers and CIA agents, as well as bombers and infantry,’’ he writes, “the United States established itself as the most powerful human force on the planet.’’
This shift in America’s role in the world — this movement in the nature of empire itself — was accompanied by much change in the nature of the country, which, Freeman argues, was militarized, democratized, and diversified in just a few decades. Empty places filled in; others emptied out. Outsiders became insiders. Technological innovations changed the way we communicated, organized our national and home economics, conducted business and relationships. The country’s population and economy grew. New kinds of people called themselves Americans; new ways of life became mainstream.
Americans, he argues, “developed capacious notions of what was possible for themselves and their country, and in myriad ways tried to realize them.’’
Freeman, who teaches at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, organizes his book chronologically but his is an unconventional look at the period, mixing social, political and diplomatic history in a way that, for example, a two-page examination of the growth of gated communities doesn’t seem incongruous.
Today it is difficult to contemplate how dramatic the changes have been since the beginning of World War II, when only 3 percent of farm families in Kentucky had indoor toilets and when the United States had a per-capita income of $778. At that time the 11 Western states together had about the same population as New York State alone, a status that would change dramatically as a result of the nation fighting a Pacific war and sending tons of materiel, millions of dollars, and millions of people West even as it built military bases, constructed highways, and spawned investment in the region. As a result, the aircraft industry in Southern California would at war’s end account for as much money as the automobile industry in Detroit.
The Cold War that followed World War II was prosecuted by three sons of ministers who became secretaries of state (Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, Dean Rusk), and together they mixed anticommunism with Christian mission. And the Cold War with the Soviets had a parallel domestically, the drive to defeat communism at home. “Countless Americans of all faiths,’’ Freeman writes, “assumed that the struggle of the United States against the Soviet Union represented a battle between good and evil, not simply a contest between competing national interests, with their country acting on God’s side.’’
One of Freeman’s preoccupations involves the militarization of American life, which he argues warped the economy, closed off vast tracts of land for military training and research, polluted the environment, created large enclaves across the country where military officials set the culture and the conversation, reshaped political life, and fostered a lobbying and pork-barrel culture that Dwight Eisenhower would later call the military-industrial complex. “Yet,’’ he concedes, “even as militarism played an unprecedented peacetime role, the country did not become the garrison state that many feared.’’
Just as potent a force as militarization was suburbanization, which occurred as life expectancy, meat consumption, disposable income, and revolving credit grew; as federal mortgage guarantees made homes more accessible; and as highways arched out across the country. The first major US politician to emerge from the suburbs: Spiro Agnew.
Then there was another force, almost certainly more enduring. The civil-rights movement — spawned in part by the rhetoric of liberation in World War II, the incongruity of black men fighting to give freedoms to Europeans that these soldiers could not enjoy at home, and the post-war emphasis on human rights — altered the country permanently. It changed the role and place of blacks but also set in motion other irresistible changes. “[I]t transformed fundamental ideas about the rights of individuals in the society, their social roles, the relationship between government and the citizenry, and the means of achieving political and social change,’’ Freeman writes.
While the domestic hinge of history was civil rights, the foreign-policy hinge was Vietnam, which sapped the country of its momentum, confidence, and sense of purpose just as a formidable new force (the new conservatism) gathered strength and the old foe (global Communism) went into eclipse. The result was the so-called New World Order, which was, in Freeman’s reckoning, merely world disorder, without the mediating military and economic institutions of the Cold War.
The world that emerged, and that we inhabit, is less stable and less safe, than it had been decades earlier, with the additional disadvantage that our political system seems paralyzed. His last sentence says it all: “The challenge of reinvention once again faced the nation.’’ Who says historians can’t be prescriptive?David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at email@example.com.