In this succinct overview, two-time Pulitzer finalist Brands (History/Univ. of Texas; The Murder of Jim Fisk for the Love of Josie Mansfield: A Tragedy of the Gilded Age, 2011, etc.) traces the role of the dollar in shaping America's rise to global preeminence.
The author looks at historical benchmarks beginning with two signal events: the issuance of greenbacks as legal tender in 1862 and the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The establishment of the Federal Reserve System 50 years later formalized the second pole in the pendulum swings of U.S. financial policy—between emphasis on a balanced budget and tight credit and the liquidity needed to support industrial growth and high employment, both of which are at the forefront of today's political controversies. Following World War I, the increasingly important international role of the United States led to the establishment of the gold-backed dollar as a global currency, and its replacement by the greenback in 1971 when Richard Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold. Along with an overview of the past 150 years, Brands examines fascinating little-known sidelights. While William Jennings Bryan's famous pro-silver speech attacked the gold-backed dollar, in the 1870s silver was the scarcer metal and silver dollars a rarity. Contrary to the prevailing opinion that America's international dominance rests on the country's military, Brands ascribes it to the “dollar's power” which enabled the nation to “insist on market-opening measures.” The author suggests that in the 21st century, American financial hegemony will be replaced, leaving America's international role in the new post-dollar world an open question.
A welcome, balanced look at this hotly debated issue, written with the author's usual flair.