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Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (1996)

by James T. Patterson

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James Patterson's history of the U.S. in the post war era is an excellent omnibus overview of the period, covering a wide range of trends and themes, and bringing personalities vividly to life. Despite its considerable length, it is eminently readable, with an extensive index and a helpful bibliographic essay at the end. All this makes it a worthy entry in the magisterial Oxford history of the U.S., if perhaps bit less gripping than a few other entries in the series -- McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom", and Kennedy's "Freedom from Fear". Two possible explanations for this may be worth noting. First, in a narrative sense, the period itself did not have a single focus like the Civil War or the Depression, but rather a multiplicity of themes. Patterson's trope of "grand expectations" is a good marker for American attitudes at mid-century, but there were as he demonstrates several sets of grand expectations at work. Secondly, this is recent history -- within the memory of many readers (including this one), and lacking perhaps the advantages of distance.

"Grand Expectations" explores events from 1945 -- when the U.S. was unquestionably 'top country' -- to Watergate, when the country seemed to many to be coming undone. Patterson examines the period from several perspectives. Certainly, he explores domestic and international political patterns, but also goes into cultural and economic trends. This makes it a richer and more nuanced work than many standard histories, which are too often political narratives of who did what to whom. Not that Patternson is short on who and whom. His political portraits are vivid and often show how leaders' personalities interacted with events to produce specific outcomes. Patterson's discussion of Lyndon Johnson's policies brings out what some might consider the tragedy of Ol' Lyndon,, while his discussion of the Nixon/Eisenhower relationship almost made me sympathize with Tricky Dick. He gives the struggle for civil rights its rightful place, putting it at the center of the changes that overtook America in the 1960's, as the key instance of the "rights revolution" that affected so many areas of American life.

In a work with so wide a scope, some readers may well feel that some themes, or events, or personalities have been short-changed. And in a work which clearly strives for balance. some may feel that the approach on certain still-contentious issues is too tepid. Overall, however, this book provides a compelling narrative of a critical period. And those of us who lived through the period may find it particularly interesting. Several times in reading this book, I had "ah-ha!" moments -- so that's what was really going on. ( )
1 vote annbury | Apr 14, 2013 |
While faulting Paterson for missing an opportunity to show the intersections of public and private life, to merge popular culture with politics and to place women's lives on an equal footing with men's, Elaine Taylor May still calls it a balanced and moderate account of the first three decades of the post war world. Charles Alexander also sees the account as balanced and "judicious." By starting with a chapter on "Veterans, Ethnics, Blacks and Women," Patterson sets the tone for the rest of the book. which is the account of "grand expectations" excited by the triumph in WWII and buoyed by the remarkable post-war economic boom. It was, as May points out, often the disparity between these grand expectations and the ability of the government to meet these expectations that lead to many of the rights revolution that grew in the land. Rhetoric about American liberty, it would seem, often outstripped the actual commitment of America's leaders to deliver social equality to all regardless of race, ethnicity, class or gender.

In his review for Reviews in American History, Walter Hixson points out some of the key issues which Patterson addresses in putting forward his "grand expectations" thesis. On the Cold War, Patterson finds that it was close to inevitable. Truman may have added to the apocalyptic character of the conflict, but Stalin bears much of the blame. The Korean War, despite many errors along the way was essentially a necessary war to stop North Korean aggression. In line with recent scholarship that revives Ike's powers as a statesman, his assessment of Eisenhower is quite favorable. The Red Scare popularly known as McCarthyism is set in a larger cultural context, with Ike getting a slight chiding for not taking Tail Gunner Joe on earlier in his presidency. He is artfully able to catch the mood of the times for the common folk in pointing to the importance of prosperity, against the critiques of America's self-appointed elites. For people getting their first home, the alienation of the intelligentsia meant little. Yet, he is writing top-down history and there is little in this very think volume of grass roots history. He acknowledges the contribution of grass roots activism to the Civil Rights cause but focus on the national leadership. Ike resisted Brown (1954) believing that his appointment of Earl Warren was the single biggest mistake of his administration. The Kennedy administration was haltingly converted to limited support of civil rights. It was LBJ who emerges as the real champion of social legislation, but he oversold it and fell victim to his own pride. The escalation he pursued in Vietnam was driven by his absolute obsession not to be tagged as the guy who "lost" Vietnam. It is, in Patterson's view, wholly unproductive to engage in the Monday morning quarterback exercise. This was the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time and with the wrong enemy -- as LBJ was to learn. Patterson's critique of Nixon in Vietnam is also insightful. Had Nixon been willing to compromise in 69 he might have gotten instead what he ended up getting in 73. In the end, the economy's slump in the 70s, in combination with the double psychic shocks of Vietnam and Watergate, destroyed the confidence many Americans had in their government and put an end to the "grand expectations" of an era.

Alan Brinkley, in reviewing another of Pattern's books (America's Struggle Against Poverty, 1900-1980) for Reviews in American History, comments on how the welfare state is so late and so light a tax burden in comparison to other western countries but that it still evokes a great deal of anger. In a scant 200 pages, Patterson explains the history of attitudes toward the poor starting with Progressivism, working through the New Deal and bringing the discussion through the War on Poverty and into the present world of "welfare reform." Patterson demonstrates that conservative inhibitions have rendered the American welfare state too small to be effective. In a country where middle class critics of the undeserving poor still dismiss the poor as "loafers" and "bums," conservative attitudes toward the poor have something of a 19th century ring to them. Patterson presents a "vision of a rich and powerful nation creating a modern welfare state almost in spite of itself, of a society stumbling into a commitment it neither understood nor desired."
  mdobe | Jul 23, 2011 |
Although I prefer reading history books that are focused on a particular person, event, or theme, once in awhile, it’s good to get an overview of an era. And there’s no better series for that than the Oxford History of the United States. The last one I read was What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 – the Jacksonian era. This time I chose more recent times – from 1945 to 1974: the nuclear attack on Japan; McCarthyism; the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts; political assassinations; the women’s movement; the first men on the moon; Vietnam; the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.

Just when I had gotten to the point when I thought our world was going crazy, I’m reminded that there are crazy times for every generation. Our Congress and nation may be divided today, but it’s no worse today than in the 1960s. We may be in a quagmire of war (two or more really), with thousands being killed in a foreign land, but we’ve been there before. And probably will be again. At least today’s soldiers are volunteers, not the poor (in more than one sense) draftees that fought the war in Vietnam. Reading history does put things into perspective.

Reading history usually has me clamoring for more. Last week, I ordered from Netflix a DVD that included the Edward R Murrow “See It Now” shows dealing with McCarthy. It was enlightening and more than a little scary. That man was CRAZY. And I now plan to tackle a book on Watergate that’s been sitting gathering dust in my bookcase.

All in all Grand Expectations was a satisfying read. I limited myself to one chapter a day, so it took me 25+ days to read it. It was well worth the time. ( )
  NewsieQ | Apr 18, 2011 |
2974 Grand Expectations: The United States 1945-1974, by James T. Patterson (read 26 Apr 1997)`I read this because it is a co-winner of the Bancroft History prize for 1997. It covers a period I know well, and is based on secondary sources, but it does a good job and its views are neither too liberal nor too conservative. It was a tumultuous 30 years and this book tells the story thereof well. ( )
  Schmerguls | Jan 15, 2008 |
It's a grand book. I love James T. Patterson and his research is thorough. It's a long book but well worth it. ( )
  Angelic55blonde | Jun 29, 2007 |
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At 7:00 p.m. EWT (Eastern War Tim) on August 14, 1945, President Harry Truman announced to a packed press conference that World War II had ended.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0195117972, Paperback)

Part of the multivolume Oxford History of the United States, Grand Expectations spotlights the United States at the center of the international stage during the post World War II years. The book opens on country very different from the U.S. of today--racial segregation was law and more than half the nation's farm dwellings had no electricity. With England, Germany, and Japan ravaged by war, the U.S. entered a period of prosperity that soared to unimaginable heights in the 1960s. Though Patterson ends his book with the downfall of Nixon and the beginnings of a troubled economy, he concludes that the U.S. in 1974, "remained one of the most stable societies in the world."

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:51:25 -0400)

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