Recent America: The United States Since 1945

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9780130212467: Recent America: The United States Since 1945

Pulitzer Prize winning author Irwin Unger provides a compelling narrative history of the American years from the end of World War Two to the 21st century. The text touches all the major topical bases—wars, economic growth, women, racial and life-style minorities, cultural trends, demographic evolution, and politics and diplomacy—while telling the story of America's history and places the themes within their chronological setting. Written to educate students in the broad trends, the text highlights how economic, demographic and cultural change affected all Americans rather than one specific group. This volume covers all aspects of American history since World War II including “Postwar America (1945-1952), the Eisenhower Era (1953-1960), the turbulent sixties, Vietnam, an era of malaise, the conservative tide and century's end (1993-2001). For history enthusiast and others interested in a broad-based narrative on American History since World War II.

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From the Back Cover:

Recent America is the story of the United States and the American people from the end of World War II to the present. The thickly braided narrative seeks to show the evolution of American life and experience in the sixty years since 1945 and to link the changes together.

Obviously, any work of history must be selective. Some themes and topics must be subordinated; others highlighted. In this work the author focuses, above all, on people. The concerns and doings of ordinary men and women are prominently discussed. That focus has led in turn to emphases on work, and income, and technology. But it has not precluded social relations, play, and the arts. At the same time, the orientation does not ignore the role of elites, especially in foreign policy and politics, in shaping the events that affect every American's life. It also does not ignore the play of large "forces," often unforeseen, that powerfully impact even the small events of daily life in recent America.

Professor Unger's first published book, The Greenback Era, won the Pulitzer Prize. Since then, often in collaboration with his wife, Debi, he has written seven more, including The Movement: A History of the American New Left, Turning Point: 1968, The Best of Intentions, and LBJ: A Life. He and his wife are currently writing a book on the Guggenheims, the industrialists and arts benefactors.

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The decades since World War II have, for good or ill, been momentous for the United States and for the American people. These were prosperous years. The United States pulled out of the greatest economic depression it ever faced and began a half century and more of steady and expanding prosperity. These were tolerant years. Between 1945 and the present, Americans ended legal racial segregation and, by and large, learned to live with groups, practices, and beliefs that were once disparaged or even banned. These were democratic years. Increasingly authority diffused from political parties, rigid hierarchies, and self-perpetuating elites to other groups and looser aggregations and associations. These were creative years. In painting, literature, and the popular arts in America became a cultural dynamo, respected and envied around the world. Yet even acknowledging all these advances, these were troubled and turbulent years as well. Especially in the 1960s the country was wracked with violence and torn by dissension. And these were also menacing years. For most of the last half of the twentieth-century Americans cowered under the threat of superpower collision and nuclear holocaust.

These themes—along with others—provide the substance of this history. But the work is not structured thematically. I believe that history, as the word itself declares, is a story that includes an opening and a development, if not always a satisfying final resolution. And so the work has a chronological framework. Most chapters represent chunks of time, and it is within each of these that the themes play out. This approach not only locks on to a basic human interest in narrative; it is also the best way, I believe, to understand the past.

In any history, of course, it is human beings, their feelings, doings, and ideas, that are the ultimate substance. Impersonal, disembodied "forces" must not be neglected—but I do not believe that forces are enough to explain the events of history. People are not will-less objects, unable to influence events. I do not subscribe to the "great man" theory of historical causation. Even the most powerful and commanding figures are hedged in by the circumstances—material, ideological, political, and social—of their day. Yet they are rarely helpless against the currents of history. Given these views, the reader will not be surprised to find much attention given to biography and to the interplay of personality.

It is a commonplace among thoughtful Americans, even today, to criticize texts for neglecting "outsiders." In fact this is seldom true any more, a change that reflects a revolution in attitudes since World War II. And it is certainly not true of Recent America: The United States Since 1945. The work, rather, seeks to recount the progress of many groups in America once considered secondary players in the nation's story. The reader of Recent America will find extensive coverage of women, blacks, Latinos (Hispanics), immigrants, gays, dissenters, and men and women of traditional religious views. These Americans, obviously far more than half the total population, have rightly demanded that their voices be heard, their stories told. And they are told in this work-I hope with sensitivity and care. At the same time, however, I have sought to strike a balance. If those formerly outside now have enhanced access to power and wealth, traditional elites cannot be dismissed. They are still ensconced disproportionately in the seats of privilege and authority, and their views and doings are central to understanding the course of the nation and the society.

This raises another matter: the place of politics. It is undoubtedly true that in the past scholars conflated history with politics. History, they believed, was merely past politics. We no longer have so limited a view of history. Yet, in their rejection of the older perception, some recent historians, especially perhaps writers of textbooks, have neglected politics and politicians excessively. They seem to count for little. Indeed, government itself becomes a minor adjunct of a complex society. Readers of Recent America will encounter a different perspective. I believe that it is through government, however obliquely, that society registers its broadest wishes and sets the terms for all its other endeavors.

Readers will also discover an emphasis on economic events. I believe in the centrality of the material conditions of people's lives. The promise of America has always been one of its unique virtues and that has always meant, primarily, economic promise. However important religion, culture, and personal relationships have been to Americans since 1945, it was the material conditions of their lives which engaged most of their time and energies. The reader of this work will learn much, I believe, about the way people worked, about economic growth and it sources, and about how wealth was distributed.

Nor do I slight foreign affairs. Americans, with two broad oceans to either side, have often felt distant from world affairs. It is difficult for many to see the relevance of events abroad to their lives. Even the experience of World War II has not dissolved a root desire to detach from the messy and threatening turbulence of the world outside this continental nation. But of course this view is unrealistic. During the years covered by Recent America the lives of virtually every American was molded in part by the Cold War, the potentially deadly international rivalry of the United States and the Soviet Union. It cost the nation many billions of dollars that could have enhanced the quality of life. It created anxieties that cast a shadow on daily existence and helped shape the arts. It influenced the way Americans felt about their educational system. It affected domestic politics. It even rechanneled the course of science and technology. Its rather abrupt end in the last decade of the twentieth century leaves us with uncertainty about developments in many different aspects of our lives.

All told, the story of America's last six decades is a grand one. I hope that my telling of it is equal to its scope.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Books, even single-authored books, are in reality the products of many hands and minds. I would like to thank a number of people, at Prentice Hall and in the academic community, for helping me make the present one possible. First, I am grateful to Charles Cavaliere, the acquistions editor at PH, for picking this work up from another and helping to carry it through to completion. Emsal Hasan, his assistant, was always supportive. Barbara Christenberry, production editor, and Martha Francis, a most skillful copy editor, were among the best I have encountered. I am also grateful to several outside readers who reviewed the manuscript and provided constructive criticism. These include Bruce J. Dierenfield of Canisius College, Katherine Aiken of the University of Idaho, Albert I. Berger of the University of North Dakota, and Margaret Bendroth of Calvin College.

IRWIN UNGER
Department of History
New York University

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