Empire and Revolution: On Joshua Freeman
“One of the central themes of American historiography is that there is no American empire.” So wrote the eminent historian William Appleman Williams in 1955. During the subsequent decades, there was a revolution in the study of American empire, first by historians of international relations (mostly on the left), including Williams, Walter LaFeber and Lloyd Gardner, who emphasized the economic impetus behind US expansionism. More recently, imperialism has fallen under the purview of cultural historians like Emily Rosenberg and Victoria de Grazia, who in different ways foregrounded the ambition to spread the gospel of consumerism and liberal development abroad. Mary Renda and Paul Kramer, among others, have powerfully linked the efforts to dominate people of color both at home and abroad (US policies in Haiti and the Philippines grew from the poisoned soil of Jim Crow and racial restriction). Still others have emphasized the culture of masculinity that pervaded America’s overseas adventures, from Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders through the Green Berets in Vietnam.
But for all their talent, the work by these historians of American empire has barely penetrated the popular consciousness. For most public intellectuals and the public itself, America still stands as an exception to Rome or Britain, allergic to imperialism because of its anticolonial roots and its lower-case democratic culture. The United States is a nation builder, not an empire builder; a world power that benignly brought democracy to the world by sowing the seeds of capitalism; a beacon of persuasion rather than coercion. Even if, over the last sixty years, American capital has reached into every corner of the world, Hollywood and New York have reshaped popular culture in Paris and Mumbai, presidents and Congress have provided hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign aid, and America has intervened in civil wars abroad from Angola to Laos, from Guatemala to Libya, the United States, wrote Gardner in a much-quoted 1989 essay, is still “the empire that dare not speak its name.”
Joshua Freeman sets out to undermine this exceptionalist view in his synthesis of American history after World War II. American Empire is comprehensive in its sweep, but returns to three major themes: the country’s extraordinary economic growth, especially in the quarter-century following World War II; the proliferation of mass movements to bring the promise of democracy to fruition on the home front; and the dramatic expansion of American power in the world. Freeman is a labor historian by training and the author of Working-Class New York (2000), one of the most compelling urban histories published in the last few decades. Befitting his interests, he emphasizes the economic dimension of the recent American past and highlights the centrality of social movements (organized labor and civil rights, particularly) in remaking the internal politics of the United States. On the third dimension, American foreign policy, Freeman is the most conventional. He assumes that America is an empire rather than defining exactly what that means. And unlike many of the most recent social and cultural historians writing on the subject, he leaves empire’s subjects mostly voiceless and, by implication, powerless.
It is no mean feat to encapsulate close to six decades of history in a few hundred pages without ruthless compression or glib superficiality. Freeman pulls off what most historians cannot: he has written a survey that seldom slips into textbook banalities. This is no tedious compendium of facts, but rather a powerful small-d democratic account of recent American history, compellingly readable and often passionate. To his credit, Freeman integrates, more smoothly than most, the top-down history of presidents, courts and policy-makers with the bottom-up history of social movements. He ably discusses Truman’s cold war politics, the National Security Council and the Marshall Plan, as well as Social Security, welfare and housing policy. He carefully recounts the Kennedy assassination, offers one of the most thorough and useful brief histories of the Great Society in print, explains Watergate and dutifully, if not enthusiastically, explicates Reagan’s vision of “morning in America.”
By far the strongest part of Freeman’s book is its discussion of the extraordinary array of social movements that remade American society in the mid- to late twentieth century. Some historians—most notably Princeton’s Sean Wilentz—have argued against interpretations of history that see policy advances as primarily the consequence of pressure from the bottom up and, conversely, periods of retrenchment resulting from the failure of a coherent opposition. Freeman makes the counterargument with real force. He explores the role of organized labor, especially the left-liberal unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, in shaping public policy in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s; he offers a broad and judicious account of the civil rights movement; and he skillfully tracks the rise of the New Left, the counterculture, environmentalism, sexual liberation and feminism.
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Freeman spends just as much time on the history of the American right and fully integrates the conservative rebellion into the mainstream of postwar American history, even if his sympathies are clearly with the left. He explores the deep roots of the New Right in corporate campaigns against the New Deal. And he powerfully traces the grassroots right-wing insurgency, from Young Americans for Freedom and the Goldwater campaign, through Howard Jarvis and the tax revolts of the 1970s, to the rise of the Moral Majority—culminating in the racialized politics of the welfare “reform” and anti–civil rights campaigns that birthed the Reagan Revolution. Freeman offers a comprehensive analysis of the decline of organized labor, the rise of an ideology of market fundamentalism and the emergence of anti-tax movements, what he calls the “resurrection of corporate capitalism.” He powerfully depicts the impact of economic stagnation in the 1970s on the nation’s landscape and compellingly describes the new geography of inequality in late twentieth-century America, from suburban gated communities to slums dominated by the hulks of abandoned factories and overshadowed by the growing prison-industrial complex.
Few scholars are better than Freeman at exploring the ways the conservative turn in public policy shaped the Democratic Party—particularly the Clinton administration, whose social welfare and economic programs brought the market revolution pioneered by the right to fruition. Those looking for a partisan version of modern American history—liberal versus conservative, right versus left—will not find it here: the rise of the right and the reconfiguration of liberalism are fundamentally intertwined in his account.
Freeman also brings the states back in. He begins his book with a discussion of the “differences in state economies, social arrangements, and political cultures” that “in turn shaped the national polity.” Rather than simply reifying the traditional North/South divide that still dominates accounts of the American past, he takes his readers on a whirlwind tour of the Midwest, the Northeast, the South, the Southwest and the West, pausing to reflect on shifts in agricultural production in the Great Plains, the rise and travails of Fordism, the decrepitude of colonial and nineteenth-century cities, the electrification of the rural South and the massive impact of federal military spending in California. Throughout American Empire, he is attentive to regional variation, peppering the book with examples of state-level policy—a topic usually given short shrift, except when it comes to providing examples of Jim Crow.
Through the careful accumulation of detail, Freeman captures the dynamism of regional identities and politics in the United States. He shows how demographic shifts (especially interregional migration and mass suburbanization), capital flows (especially the rise of the Sunbelt) and federal policies (notably environmental regulation and civil rights laws) propelled a process of nationalization. Freeman’s story is one of the waning (if not total disappearance) of regional variation. Suburban Charlotte, North Carolina, looked a lot like suburban Detroit by the 1980s, and the distinction between regional politics, once bright, began to blur.
That said, Freeman could have spent more time highlighting the ongoing tensions between central and state power in the United States. Even in a period of consolidating federal authority, states fought to maintain their autonomy, even if they only partially succeeded. Key liberal social programs, such as aid to families with dependent children (popularly called welfare), unemployment insurance and federal housing policy, were left under state control, resulting in a hodgepodge of eligibility rules and wide state-by-state variations that persist to the present day. Yes, 1960s-era civil rights legislation undermined “states’ rights,” and Johnson’s massive Elementary and Secondary Education Act channeled hundreds of billions of dollars to public schools, ending a long, seemingly sacrosanct tradition of local control of education. The expansive environmental programs of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon also took away some of the local and state discretion over land use (for example, by protecting wetlands from development). But the states fought back and, in some arenas, succeeded in wresting control from the feds by getting waivers to federal programs, or by insisting that federal spending on crime, healthcare and infrastructure be turned into block grants and administered on the state level. The result is a wide variation in how federal funds are spent state by state, as well as how much.
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