Commentary Magazine


The Crucial Decade, by Eric F. Goldman

Trivia and History
by Irving Kristol
The Crucial Decade: America 1945-1955. By Eric F. Goldman. Knopf. 298 pp. $4.00.

“Strange,” Thomas Carlyle noted sarcastically apropos Mary Queen of Scots and her English historians, “that a man should think he was writing the history of a nation while he is chronicling the amours of a wanton young woman. . . .” Not so strange, really, since there is a demonstrable connection between those amours and the course of English and Scottish history. Like all innovators, Carlyle was something less than fair to those who had gone before him. Because he was so sensitive to the larger impersonal forces that move men and events, he overlooked the possibility that, in other times and other places, men and events were moved by smaller and more familiar impulsions; because he saw The People preempt the stage in his own day, he was inclined to forget that in earlier performances The People were only too often a dumb audience. Fundamentally, however, and despite his strident unfairness, he was in the right. The new ways of writing history in the 19th century were a positive gain: whether the people were just people, or whether they were The People, they were miscast in any but the leading roles. In retrospect, one could plainly see that the trivial and fickle passions of Mary counted for less than the shifts in religious opinion, in habits of life, in manners of work and play, of her inarticulate subjects. And so the world was prepared for Macaulay, and for the study of history as we understand it today:

“I should very imperfectly execute the task which I have undertaken if I were merely to treat of battles and sieges, of the rise and fall of administrations . . . and of debates in Parliament. It will be my endeavor to relate the history of the people as well as the history of the government, to trace the progress of useful and ornamental arts, to describe the rise of religious sects and the changes of literary taste, to portray the manners of successive generations, and not to pass by with neglect even the revolutions which have taken place in dress, furniture, repasts, and public amusements.”

But one thing always leads to another. Having brought The People into the theater, the historian was faced with a problem of discipline: the crowd was always on the verge of unpacking their box lunches, turning on the portable radios, and making passes at one another’s wives. Such behavior, however amusing, and even when it is behavior by The People, is not quite the stuff that history is made of. The loves of Tom, Dick, and Harry are, if anything, less worthy of the historian’s attention than the loves of Mary. The Marxists tried hard to establish one principle of order and relevance in all this commotion, by dividing the group into classes and assigning them distinct roles; but everyone was soon bored and either forgot their lines or simply drifted away. Other earnest scholars tried other methods, more or less coercive, with not much more or less success. It was all exceedingly difficult: if one assumed that everyday life, as distinct from the high life of politics, was the final substance beneath the trend of events, then one was in danger of being overwhelmed by all the trivia of everyday life, and of losing all sense of the significant, the meaningful, the important. For Macaulay, writing in Victorian England, the danger was not so evident, since The People in his day meant, in effect, the various non-political elites, who were manageable in their number and distinct in their activities. But when The People did come to include everybody—well, as Aristotle pointed out long ago, if you seriously want to write the history of everybody you have to write poetry, not history.

The historians have accommodated themselves—resigned themselves, one might say—to this situation in different ways. One is by a mock-Marxism which leads to chapters on “the socio-economic context” or “the popular background” being inserted into what are otherwise old-fashioned political narratives. A second way out is to stick with Macaulay—to assume, in other words, that despite appearances and ideology, The People are naturally divided into manageable units (the writers, the inventors, the philosophers, the clergy) and to give a separate chapter to each, distinct from other chapters that deal with war, diplomacy, economics, and general matters of state. This is still the favorite approach of most of our textbooks. A third, and more ambitious, way is to mix freely with the crowd and try for a synthesis of popular journalism and academic history, with the aim of seeing The People whole. This was the route that Mark Sullivan tentatively explored (his eyes glued to a newspaper, however) in Our Times, that Frederick Lewis Allen boldly marked out in his Only Yesterday, which was jauntily navigated by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge in The Long Weekend and by Malcolm Muggeridge in The Thirties, and down which Eric Goldman now solemnly parades in The Crucial Decade.

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Frederick Lewis Allen subtitled his book “An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties,” and his preface struck an apologetic (and slightly ironic) note: “. . . I have wondered whether some readers might not be interested and perhaps amused to find events and circumstances which they remember well—which seem to have happened only yesterday —woven into a pattern which at least masquerades as history.” Professor Goldman (of Princeton) speaks not of amusement or masquerades: he is a professional historian, author of several indubitable and quite distinguished historical works, and in his preface he writes: “The book is history in the most direct sense of the word—a narrative, written with a careful regard for facts, an attempt to escape partisanship or other bias, an effort to place events in the longer perspective, and [on?] the assumption that the history of man is the story of men.”

Professor Goldman’s regard for fact is indeed impressive. He was not content with the usual secondary sources, but actually interviewed and entered into correspondence with several dozen of the names that are listed in his index. As a reward for his enterprise, he has come up with many bits of information—about the origins of the Truman Doctrine, of the Marshall Plan, of the American government’s decision to intervene in Korea—that are interesting in themselves and for which future historians will be indebted to him. His escape from partisanship is, as one would expect, less impressive. Despite his disclaimer, this is a distinctly partisan book. Professor Goldman’s bias is controlled, urbane, and probably congenial to most of his readers, who also vote the Democratic ticket. But it is there, had to be there; to write “objective” contemporary history is about as feasible as writing an objective autobiography, and one can only wonder why Professor Goldman bothered to enter such a disclaimer, which leaves him open to the accusation of disingenuousness.

Far more disturbing than disingenuousness in so worldly an author, however, is the overwhelming impression that what has been accomplished is an exercise in trivialization. In the list of those whom Professor Goldman either interviewed or corresponded with, there is the name of Lauren Bacall. She appears once in ‘the book, on page 18, in the following sentence: “And everybody was glad to meet Harry Truman now, even the movie stars like Lauren Bacall, who came and sat on the top of the piano while [he] played the ‘Missouri Waltz.’” One cannot but admire Professor Goldman’s attention to detail, while wondering at its application: does it really matter that Miss Bacall sat on the piano? How would the “crucial decade” have been affected if she had merely leaned on it? Unfortunately, such questions are not merely captious, but strike at the root of Professor Goldman’s method. He has written, at one and the same time, serious history and frivolous journalism. It is all rather like reading a special supplement of Time magazine: every fact has been carefully checked, every incident has been presented in dramatic and readable terms, it is terribly easy to read—and terribly hard to take seriously. Rather than guiding us through the real world, it offers us an escape from it.

What, one wonders, is the point of paying such determined attention to the truth of individual facts when these facts are then going to be used, not to construct some larger truthful picture, but to make a “readable” and chatty story? “Life had prepared Harry Truman for the simple. Life was Jackson County, Missouri, where you grew up nearsighted and the other boys snickered, you went courting Bess Wallach in the big house and her parents tried to get rid of you, you came back from the war to start the haberdashery with Eddie Jacobson and the store went broke. But you stuck at it. You kept in mind the simple things . . .” etc., etc.—this is perhaps suitable for a Dos Passosian novel (even if the genre itself is a bit out of date), but is it history or a counterfeit poesy? One trusts Professor Goldman to the extent of not challenging any of the details; but one distrusts his style to the extent of suspecting that this was not Harry Truman—because this is not any real person, only a quasiliterary creation.

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Oddly enough, Professor Goldman’s intentions are serious, not to say honorable. He has a thesis: the “crucial decade” witnessed the culmination of a “Half-Century of Revolution” in domestic affairs which resulted in the welfare state, and the final break with the nationalist-isolationist tradition in foreign affairs. There are, moreover, parts of the book where Professor Goldman writes like an older-fashioned historian—as when he sketches the background of McCarthyism—and here he is both instructive and persuasive. But, on the whole, the preponderance of “snappy” journalism defeats his own purpose: this kind of writing has inherent in it a touch of the sardonic, the satirical, the spoofing. The unimportant is inflated, the significant is demeaned. The population explosion of postwar America, clearly one of the decisive facts of modem history, gets three sentences—half as much as the scandals in “amateur” sports. Three juvenile delinquents in Nahart, Massachusetts, get two paragraphs; Dien Bien Phu gets considerably less. “Local color” is continually elbowing history out.

The sad thing is that, even where Professor Goldman obviously feels deeply about a subject, his method cheapens his sentiments. The three pages he devotes to Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color bar in organized baseball were certainly written from the heart—but they read as if they were written from the Time morgue:

“Amid it all, a powerful, lithe Negro was turning the base paths of Ebbets Field into a holy war. . . . Half Bamum and half Billy Sunday, Rickey had decided to defy baseball’s ancient color line and sign Robinson to a Brooklyn contract. Now the sensitive, quicktempered young Negro faced the most brutal kind of contest; this time he had to battle by not battling at all. . . .

“Robinson took his position at first base and more than occasionally players came smashing against him, at times with spikes out; the Negro ground his teeth and said nothing. . . .”

And so on, to ultimate victory for the forces of Tolerance and Democracy. This is “eminently readable” but, in the end, is it Jackie Robinson we have been reading about or Frank Merriwell? In previous decades, the historian was less ambitious, more prosaic, and even more prosy. But he was also less vulgar, less eager to “exploit” his characters—and his readers. Here, for instance, is how Justin McCarthy, in his Victorian multi-volumed and enormously popular A History of Our Own Times, recounted another notable victory for human decency:

“It is a fact well worthy of note amid whatever records of court ceremonial and of political change, that a few days after the accession of the Queen, Mr. Montefiore was elected Sheriff of London, the first Jew who had ever been chosen for that office; and that he received knighthood at the hands of her Majesty when she visited the City on the following Lord Mayor’s day. He was the first Jew whom royalty had honored in this country since the good old times when royalty was pleased to borrow the Jew’s money, or order instead the extraction of his teeth. The expansion of the principle of religious liberty and equality which has been one of the most remarkable characteristics of the reign of Queen Victoria, could hardly have been more becomingly inaugurated than by the compliment which sovereign and city paid to Sir Moses Montefiore.”

Dull stuff, in comparison with Professor Goldman. But dignified, too—with a dignity that fits the measure of man rather than the overblown measure of The People.

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