Twentieth-Century Pox

Article excerpt

Twentieth-Century America: A Brief History

Thomas C. Reeves

Oxford /368 pages /$30

Do we really need another history of America in the last century? Maybe not, but my reason for picking up Thomas C. Reeves's Twentieth Century America wasn't to acquire fresh details and telling anecdotes. It was to learn Reeves's particular take on America's role in the late great century. Thomas Reeves? If you're not familiar with him, you should be. He's a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Parkside, which doesn't tell you much, and as far as I can tell he's not a conservative. But he's written three books prior to this new one that I believe are enormously worthy.

First there was The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy, a highly critical but non-hysterical account of McCarthy's life. It appeared before the flood of new information from Soviet archives and the Venona files, and I suspected Reeves might now be slightly less critical of McCarthy's crusade against Soviet spies and sympathizers in America. But it turns out he's not, declaring in Twentieth Century America that McCarthy didn't uncover a single spy. Oh, well. Then there was A Question of Character: The Life of John F. Kennedy, a seminal book that raised the issue of personal morality in public leaders. Reeves was very tough on JFK on moral grounds before any other historian I'm aware of was, and of course well before the Clinton presidency heightened our understanding of the harm a leader's moral failures can do. More recently, Reeves wrote The Empty Church, the sad story of how liberal clergy have driven millions of Christians out of the mainline Protestant churches and weakened those churches to the point of near-collapse. His case was irrefutable.

Now we have Reeves's brief, rather arid account of America in the last century, and it presents a fairly conventional-that is, mostly liberal-interpretation of events that brought the United States to the status of lone superpower and economic colossus. Or I should say it's conventional in its handling of individual episodes and people. Ronald Reagan, for example, is treated as both disengaged and passive and also as a powerful leader. Reeves's heroes of the Cold War are Harry Truman, George C. Marshall, and Dean Acheson-not Reagan, Caspar Weinberger, and George Shultz. But Reeves, without much fanfare, does something much larger in Twentieth Century America, too. He examines the century by two yardsticks, one measuring power and prosperity, the other morality and social strength. By the first measure, America soars throughout the century. By the second, it doesn't do as well.

Reeves sums up America's progress this way.

At the close of the twentieth century, the freedom and prosperity enjoyed by Americans were the envy of much of the world. But millions around the globe also feared the secularism, the crime, the popular culture, the cynicism, and the growing disparity of wealth that were part of American life.

Despite his qualms, Reeves doesn't minimize the importance of material abundance and the comfortable life it has brought to America. And he's great on statistics. In 1997, roughly three-fourths of American homes had air conditioning, 77.5 percent had washing machines, 53.7 percent had dishwashers. Fifty-eighty million homes had warm air furnaces. A year later, 98 percent of homes had TVs and two-thirds of these had cable. Nearly half had one or more computers, and by 1999 more than 40 percent of American adults used the Internet. Not bad.

Capitalism brought to the average American what socialists and leftists insisted it never could. Over the century, a worker's income bought more and more. In 1915, a refrigerator cost a worker 3,162 hours of labor. By 1970, it was down to 112 hours and in 1997 the cost was 68 hours. The cost of a color TV in hours worked dropped from 562 in 1954 to 174 in 1970 to 23 in 1997. Americans may be jaded by all the prosperity, but Reeves isn't. …