Christian v. Cannibal

Michael Rogin

  • The American Century by Harold Evans
    Cape, 710 pp, £40.00, November 1998, ISBN 0 224 05217 9
  • The Time of Our Time by Norman Mailer
    Little, Brown, 1286 pp, £25.00, September 1998, ISBN 0 316 64571 0

‘The 20th century belongs to the United States because of the triumph of its faith in its founding idea of political and economic freedom.’ Not only did the American people ‘grow rich and expand their domestic freedoms. They sustained Western civilisation by acts of courage, generosity and vision unparalleled in the history of man.’ So Harold Evans introduces his lavishly illustrated ‘popular political history’ of ‘the American century’, written to educate American immigrants like himself about the ‘nature of their heritage’. Something goes wrong when the page numbers change from roman to arabic numerals, however. The first page of Chapter One, ‘The Last Frontier’, introduces us to the theft of the land promised to the Cherokee Indians in perpetuity, and to the gap between a Western history of ‘failure, exploitation and despoliation’ – the effects on the original inhabitants are attended to with eloquent detail – and a mythic West that epitomises the ‘spirit of freedom ... in America’s perception of itself.’

The American Century does not aim to mobilise American history against the self-justifying American myths with which it begins. Nonetheless, Harold Evans identifies a ‘direct intellectual link’ between American 19th-century Social-Darwinist gospels of the survival of the fittest and ‘Hitler and Stalin’. He is enthusiastic about the radical Populist movement against corporate power and political corruption, and sides with the working class in a chapter subtitled ‘The Class Struggle in America’, which not only celebrates such working-class heroes as Frank Little and Big Bill Haywood of the IWW, the Communist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Louis Tikas (a union leader gunned down in John D. Rockefeller Jr’s ‘Ludlow Massacre’ of striking copper miners and their families), but also recognises the corporate and state industrial violence and denial of labour freedom that was a distinctive feature of the ‘American exceptionalism’ celebrated in the introduction. He identifies white supremacy as another constitutive feature of the United States, one that became ever more pervasive after the Emancipation Proclamation, and one which, according to Evans, white Americans have had more difficulty coming to terms with than Germans have with their history of racial extermination. To demonstrate its continuing role in US politics, Evans cites Ronald Reagan’s decision to begin his 1980 Presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were murdered in 1964.

The American Century details J. Edgar Hoover’s personal and the FBI’s institutional linking of white supremacist and anti-Communist hysterias, to which America’s national police devoted far more resources than to the fight against organised crime. It stands against the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings and the American historical myths that continue to make such criticism politically impermissible; Evans even accepts that the bombs were directed as much against Russia in the emerging Cold War as against Japan in the World War Two endgame. He accuses Time editor Henry Luce, the man who coined the expression ‘the American century’, of proceeding in the manner of a Fascist in his role as leader of the post-World War Two pro-Nationalist China lobby. Although he sides with the United States in the Cold War, Evans comes down hard against the Red Scare at home, the advance across the 38th parallel that prolonged the carnage of the Korean War, the anti-Castro obsession that led to the Cuban missile crisis, and the American war on South-East Asia. He shows how Ronald Reagan’s Capraesque ‘nostalgia for small-town life’, far from saving America from predatory bankers (as in It’s a Wonderful Life), produced the $500 billion Savings and Loan deregulation scandal and the takeover of American politics by money and entertainment. (Reaganism is called state capitalism for the rich.)

Ending his tale before the Clinton follies that have initiated the third century of the American republic, Evans is all too aware of the growing gap between rich and poor, the absence of universal health care, and the collapse of public life into privately-financed and policed spaces. But then, like the Heil Hitler salute of Dr Strangelove’s uncontrollable right hand, the triumphalist tone returns in the final pages of The American Century: Reagan may have presided over the largest peacetime expansion of the military budget in American history and then imagined that the Soviets and Americans could unite behind his Star Wars Strategic Defence Initiative ‘to repel invaders of Earth from other planets’, but the result was to bankrupt the Soviet Union, produce a breakthrough in nuclear disarmament and defeat what Reagan rightly called (imitating Star Wars again) ‘the evil empire’. The fall of the Berlin Wall and America’s Cold War victory – 200 years after the ratification of the United States Constitution – made 1989 the ‘brilliant climactic year of the American century’, a triumph extended into the next century by the Gulf War. Even the covert operations of Government agencies, denounced in the body of the book, get on the honour roll (in the form of AFL-CIO) intervention in the 1949 Italian elections). Having introduced political idealism as the heart and soul of the United States, The American Century concludes by giving up on politics in favour of ‘a resurgent economy and increasing social mobility’. But even as he rejects totalitarian utopianism for the American spirit of pragmatic experimentation, Evans closes his double-columned 663 pages of text with the avowal that ‘in the American adventure, all is possible while freedom lives.’

Two histories are contending with each other in The American Century. Or perhaps there are two Harold Evanses (or, a rather crueller suggestion: perhaps the senior author superintended only the margins of the book and overlooked the subversive role of his ‘chief history researcher’, Kevin Baker, at the centre). Did the devil paint the picture, as Norman Mailer might have it, while God supplied the frame (or, since Mailer’s eschatology is not easy to decipher, was it the other way around)? Mailer, too, is having a love affair with America, but unsurprisingly he is entirely up-front about its ambivalent character. Introducing half a century of his writing about the United States, the author/editor observes: ‘How much I loved my country – that was evident – and how much I didn’t love it at all.’ Evans may begin and end with what Mailer condemns as a ‘non-stop reflexive patriotism’ that is split from the brilliantly achieved, compellingly dramatised visual and narrative history of the substance of the book, but there is a better explanation for this divided American Century than what Mailer would call schizophrenia.

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