Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

Preface

An anthology necessarily reflects the editor's intellectual and professional interests. This one reflects also some ten years of teaching the history of twentieth-century America, and is designed to give the student access to twenty-three essays which I have found indispensable in supplementing -- and often contradicting -- the interpretive positions taken in lectures or texts. Such a collection could quickly grow to one hundred essays or more. The supply of stimulating articles, essays, and chapters is hearteningly ample. Given space, one might explore not only public policy (domestic political issues, and war) but the patterns of life of social groups and classes, the condition and treatment of minorities, the role of women, literature and the other arts, science, commerce, recreation. But an editor is forced to make choices.

My own choices may be easily summarized. First of all, the anthology was kept relatively short, to allow instructors and students as much room as possible for supplementary paperbacks, which are today so plentiful. More significantly, this anthology focuses primarily upon questions which have become the subject of public policy -- upon the emotionally charged issues of equity and social justice which have produced reform movements, upon the making and ending of wars, upon race relations, upon the distribution of economic power. It is true that other issues have penetrated our public life, and many important developments have not had much career in the arenas of' public policy discussion. However, the essays selected touch what I believe are the leading issues in twentieth-century American life. We have not always as a people been so fundamentally affected by public decisions. Our history has been primarily the story of private decisions; and the forces which have controlled us, whether natural or human, often have had no discernible center, no premeditation. The twentieth century has changed that. The "blind" forces of' technology and science, the aimless choices of millions of individuals, still maneuver our society along the surprising channels of the future. But the sway of public policy is incalculably vast, and every year the nation tacitly or expressly recognizes that another zone of private affairs is or ought to be affected with the public interest. Thus political questions, in the twentieth century, chart a fundamental development in modern life. Our lives are shaped increasingly by the decisions of those with political authority. This was always recognized in the case of war; but the lines between war and peace have blurred, just as have the lines between public and private. If history is to be a liberating

-v-

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