A terrifically useful wide-lens survey of the United States in the last half of the 20th century.
Freeman (History/Queens Coll. and CUNY Graduate Center; Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II, 2000, etc.) has full command of his vast material, fashioning a structured history that is both readably general and restrained of scholarly matter as well as nicely specific regarding meaty information—e.g., he names important court cases and offers occasional quotes by contemporary observers and newsmakers. The author demonstrates how postwar economic growth helped spur the great process of democratization that placed America in the first rank among nations in terms of standard of living and basic rights for all citizens. Yet, along with the rise of consumerism, globalism and prosperity, the power shifted from the public to the private realm, specifically corporate. From the 1970s onward, Freeman shows how incipient economic inequality, unharnessed military spending and burgeoning political conservatism threatened to check much of that social progress at the end of the century. The expansion of government with the New Deal promoting socially benevolent programs generated an ongoing debate about whether government should be a muscular arm of progressive reform in the fashion of FDR or more restrained, the latter conservatism given new energy by Barry Goldwater’s ascendancy in 1960. Freeman comes down fairly hard on Kennedy’s “hyperbolic rhetoric” and “obsession with manhood and virility,” while the sections on LBJ and the “democratic revolution” of the 1960s, including civil-rights legislation and the antiwar movement, are masterly and thorough. With the dawn of the ’70s, the country moved from “dreams to nightmares,” from equal rights for women and gays toward an utter contempt for government amid Watergate, urban decline, manufacturing shutdowns, stagflation, new corporate models, deregulation and Reaganism.
A liberal-minded but still evenhanded primer for all students of U.S. history.