America in the 1890s
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A historian peels the romantic veneer off the good old days of late-19th-century America.

Although Brands (Texas A&M Univ.; The Wages of Globalism, 1994, etc.) notes that issues and events of the 1890s have reverberated down through the 20th century, he is convinced--and convincing--that the story of that volatile decade is inherently interesting and its telling "requires no extrinsic justification.'' He charges into his first chapter, on Frederick Jackson Turner's theory on the closing of the frontier, via the gripping personal story of a man who was in the thick of the rush to grab "free'' Oklahoma land. Although he recaptures this immediacy with his discussion the bloody Homestead steelworkers' strike, Brands basically settles into a topic-by-topic exploration of major events in the political, legal, and economic history of great men and the great masses that they led (and coerced and exploited). Ruthlessness, efficiency, and available resources lead to the rise of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and John Pierpont Morgan, the last of whom was even able to personally rescue the country from possible financial default in the Panic of 1893 (for a fee, of course). Journalist Jacob Riis wrote about the misery of urban slum life, and Jane Addams, one of the book's few women, did something about it. Chicago's "boodlers'' and New York City's Tammany bosses made corruptibility a foundation of big city government. Agricultural depression and intense division over the gold standard aided the rise of Populism and William Jennnings Bryan's unsuccessful but dramatic bid for the presidency. With Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court helped erode black civil rights by accepting the separate-but-equal standard, and an increasingly imperialistic country found ample cause to meddle in Cuba, Venezuela, the Philippines and Hawaii.

Narratively not always up to its best moments, but well researched and accessible; a persuasive reminder that we should look back over our shoulder at what has gone before.

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-312-13594-7
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1995

Kirkus Interview
H.W. Brands
October 11, 2016

As noted historian H.W. Brands reveals in his new book The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War, at the height of the Korean War, President Harry S. Truman committed a gaffe that sent shock waves around the world. When asked by a reporter about the possible use of atomic weapons in response to China's entry into the war, Truman replied testily, "The military commander in the field will have charge of the use of the weapons, as he always has." This suggested that General Douglas MacArthur, the willful, fearless, and highly decorated commander of the American and U.N. forces, had his finger on the nuclear trigger. A correction quickly followed, but the damage was done; two visions for America's path forward were clearly in opposition, and one man would have to make way. Truman was one of the most unpopular presidents in American history. General MacArthur, by contrast, was incredibly popular, as untouchable as any officer has ever been in America. The contest of wills between these two titanic characters unfolds against the turbulent backdrop of a faraway war and terrors conjured at home by Joseph McCarthy. “An exciting, well-written comparison study of two American leaders at loggerheads during the Korean War crisis,” our reviewer writes in a starred review. View video >


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