The American Century by Harold Evans
The American Century
by Harold Evans
Knopf. 710 pp. $50.00
Tom Wolfe had their number back in the 60′s, those mid-Atlantic men. Whereas Americans in pursuit of the mystique of aristocracy had always gone English, “the Englishman today,” wrote Wolfe, “goes American, becomes a mid-Atlantic Man, to achieve the opposite. He wants to get out from under the domination of the English upper classes by going classless.” In fact, according to Wolfe, the Englishmen in question tended to be middle-class, striving careerists in the arts of “brokerage, persuasion, savantry.” Their metamorphosis into mid-Atlantic men would occur “one day in New York,” where, surrounded by glass and glitz, they would find themselves in the company of American men treating them as slightly superior and American women “with flamingo legs” who took English accents to bed. Sure enough, their careers would flourish accordingly. Moving back and forth across the ocean, they would discover that in New York they possessed the panache of English aristocrats, while in London (remember, this was still the 60′s) they were as rich as Yanks.
One such man, undoubtedly, was and is the power editor Harold Evans, whose own love affair with America began (as he puts it in the preface to this volume) when, as a young journalist on a scholarship, he “stepped off the steamship Franconia into a New York syncopating with the rhythms of the 50′s.” Within a decade, Evans had propelled himself into so high a journalistic orbit that he was called back to England to edit the London Sunday Times. There, he earned renown as a knight errant, dueling against wicked corporations and no less wicked government. Proof of his incorruptible professionalism may be found on every page of his personal memoir of that period, Good Times, Bad Times (1984).
In 1981, Evans’s labors were rewarded with his elevation to editorship of the daily Times. Alas, however, the dark lord Rupert Murdoch had just purchased the Old Lady of Printing House Square with the connivance of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Though he bravely resisted the resulting degradations, within a year the martyred Evans had to resign. Naturally, his trans-Atlantic stature only soared the higher.
Back in New York, after an indifferent stint in television and films and as the editor of Condé Nast Traveler, Evans was finally named chief editor of Random House in 1990. There he struck gold with such authors as Colin Powell and Anonymous (Primary Colors), but struck out with such authors as Bill Clinton and Dick Morris. In 1997, he either moved over or was pushed over to direct the media properties of his friend Mortimer Zuckerman, including U.S. News & World Report and the Atlantic Monthly.
No wonder that Evans should want to celebrate a land where, the uncharitable say, he has always failed upward. And indeed you get a lot of celebration for your money in The American Century: a massive coffee-table volume weighing fully five pounds; 900 magnificent photographs, accompanied, American Heritage-style, by explanatory boxes or captions; a sprinkling of clever statistics (patterns of alcohol consumption, patents issued, percentage of Americans who voted in 1890 vs. 1990, and the like); fetching two-page vignettes on each 20th-century President; and a running narrative of the century-long era that Evans dates from 1889 to 1989.
How much of the spade work was done by Evans himself, and how much by his two chief collaborators and twenty-odd assistants, is anyone’s guess. It is a good bet, though, that the “Commentary” that opens each chapter and puts the “spin” on the history is Evans’s own doing. For these passages have the unmistakable taste of a mid-Atlantic man’s generic condescension, seasoned with careful obeisances to the reigning shibboleths of midtown Manhattan.
Evans begins by defining the American challenge as one of keeping lit the “flames of liberty and equality.” No sooner are these unexceptionable words out of his mouth, however, than he shifts into political correctness: “I have paid consistent attention to the oppressed—to blacks, Indians, women, immigrants, and others—since they are a denial of the promise of America.” Setting aside the solecism—presumably, Evans does not mean that they are what constitutes the denial—one may wonder: were all women and/or all immigrants always denied the promise of America? At the very least, any such notion sits radically at odds with the story Evans himself goes on to tell of turn-of-the-century immigrants, who
expected to find their own way [in America] with the help of the network of kith, kin, and church, and sometimes the Salvation Army. . . . They learned English, they worked hard, they taught their children, they nourished their churches and synagogues, they promoted order in their communities.
This celebration of self-reliance conflicts, indeed, not only with Evans’s conception of immigrants as always “oppressed” but with his praise for every big-government program of the century, from the Progressive era to the New Deal to the Great Society. In the end, one is at a loss to know which quality Evans finds more quintessentially American, individualism or the welfare mentality. To judge from the general drift of the text, it may well be the latter.
As one might expect, almost all the women who appear in these pages are feminist activists, from Susan B. Anthony and Emma Goldman to Jane Addams, Margaret Sanger, and Eleanor Roosevelt, to Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan—and all are lionized. Minority figures are likewise either victims or heroes or both; Cesar Chavez, he of the California grape-pickers strike, is simply “The Saint.” Other Evans favorites include fellow muckraking journalists and consumer-rights’ advocates like Ralph Nader, “to whom America owes more than it may ever realize.” Businessmen, by contrast, are either victimizers or anti-heroes or both. J.P. Morgan was a racist robber baron, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. “massacred” striking miners, and the Roaring Twenties—“Babbitt’s Day”—were a time when, in the words of John Dos Passos, “Big Money” replaced “justice and freedom.”
If neither the spirit of individualism nor business and technology made this the American century, what then (besides AFDC) did? The only candidate would seem to be American foreign policy, and particularly the crusades against imperialism, fascism, and Communism. But since Evans seldom places the American story in a global context, and altogether treats America’s wars and foreign policy half-heartedly, the particular source of the nation’s greatness in this sphere also remains, to say the least, unclear.
Thus, the Spanish-American war is summarized here as a half-baked crusade born of “moralizing, not greed”; Woodrow Wilson stands accused of “moral imperialism”; isolationism in the 1930′s is described as so engulfing the nation that it included FDR, “the isolationist in the White House”; and, while Americans after Pearl Harbor are lauded for fighting to preserve “the principles of freedom and human dignity around the globe,” the second longest passage in the volume is a sustained attack on the use of atomic bombs over Japan. To be sure, some of the judgments in this laundry list are accurate; but America can hardly be said to emerge from them with much more than a passing grade.
When it comes to U.S. containment of the Soviet Union, Evans, true to form, raises two cheers for the effort but immediately warns that excesses of self-righteousness led to some “dark and dangerous diversions.” He finds Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs guilty, but also condemns John Foster Dulles, the CIA, and the nuclear arms race. Although he shows some sympathy for Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s efforts to clean up the mess they inherited in Vietnam from the Best and the Brightest, the foreign policy of Ronald Reagan is virtually ignored, save for a brief mention of Reagan’s relations with Gorbachev, the 1983 fiasco in Lebanon that led to the death of 241 Marines, and a long wallow in the Iran-contra swamp. Evans does write that the American example of spiritual and material beneficence “was the torch of freedom all the world could see”; evidently, however, he was unable to find anything America actually did that contributed to victory in the cold war.
In short, one would look in vain in The American Century for an explanation of what high characteristics, peculiar to the United States, made this an American century. The closest Evans comes is in a passage pondering how it was that American democracy survived the cataclysmic 1930′s and 40′s when much of Europe was succumbing to fascism, Communism, or plutocratic dictatorship. But his answer—Americans, he writes, just have an instinct for democracy, and a genius for not pressing any political theory too far—simply begs the question.
If The American Century lacks historical ballast, why (aside from the prospect of sales) did Evans bother to float it? Two ulterior motives occur to me. One may have been to mount an indirect defense of Bill Clinton through the medium of an otherwise inexplicably bitter attack on Richard Nixon; for, yes, the subject of the longest (and most vituperative) passage in this book on the entire “American century” is . . . Watergate. Another may have been to skewer the British historian and columnist Paul Johnson, with whom Evans seems obsessed and who always appears in these pages tagged with pejorative epithets like “the laissez-faire apologist.” And yet, Evans’s rancor notwithstanding (he held Johnson responsible for conspiring with Murdoch to oust him from the editorship of the London Times), his own closing summary in The American Century is a virtual paraphrase of the paean to American courage and forward-looking ingenuity that ends Johnson’s own A History of the American People.
So perhaps, in the end, this leviathan of a book is really intended to be nothing more than Evans’s thank-you to a country where a young foreign journalist could arrive on a scholarship and rise to pen words like these (from Good Times, Bad Times):
I was due on holiday in America. While there, I had the pleasure of reading in the [London] Times court page that Tina Brown [then the editor of Vanity Fair, later to become the editor of the New Yorker] and I were married on 19 August 1981 at Grey Gardens, East Hampton, Long Island, the beautiful summer home of the editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, and his wife, the writer Sally Quinn. With Tina’s parents in Spain, the bride was given away by [London Times features editor] Tony Holden, who had taken a house on Martha’s Vineyard with Amanda and his children. . . . The ceremony took place in the Bradlees’ Italian garden, on the edge of the Atlantic, with Ben as the best man. . . .
God bless the Atlantic, O mid-Atlantic Man, for on its far shore there lies indeed the “classless” society, albeit some of its members are more classy (or classless) than others.