Between 1929 and 1945 the American people and their political leadership met and emerged victorious over two daunting challenges. Had events gone in other directions, our century could have been quite different. In a brilliant narrative history of broad scope and complexity, Stanford University historian David M. Kennedy recreates that crucial period in Freedom from Fear. The latest volume in the publisher's award-winning Oxford History of the American People, it encompasses political, economic, diplomatic, social, and military history.
Kennedy examines in detail the root causes that contributed to the crises, placing them in context with events elsewhere in the world. Chief among these is the terms of the Versailles Treaty after World War I, which imposed harsh reparations on Germany, brought serious economic problems to that country, and eventually raised Hitler to power. The author shows that in the United States, the economic prosperity of the 1920s did not reach all citizens, with farmers and minority groups especially left out.
What did FDR hope to accomplish with his New Deal? "We are going to make a country," he told Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, "in which no one is left out." The pattern of institutional arrangements that came out of that period, according to Kennedy, "can be summarized in one word: security - security for vulnerable individuals, to be sure . . . but security for capitalists and consumers, for workers and employers, for corporations and farms and homeowners and bankers as well." The historian also notes: ". . . legend to the contrary, much of the security that the New Deal threaded into the fabric of American society was often stitched with a remarkably delicate hand, not simply imposed by the fist of the imperious state."
Kennedy devotes considerable attention to American involvement in World War II, focusing not only on military personnel and major battles but also on those who served on the home front. In these chapters, as throughout the entire volume, there is concern for the effect of events on individuals. The tremendous popularity of Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation has shown the widespread interest in and appreciation of what Americans did in that period. There could not be a better companion volume than this one.
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.