THIS MONTH'S BOOK REVIEWS...THIS MONTH'S BOOK REVIEWS
James Gault reviews A New History of the United States by William Miller
In spite of the title this is not a ‘new’ book. It was originally published in 1958 and the copy I picked up from my ‘old book’ pile was the 1968 edition. But, as a Brit, I was curious to know more about our jumped-up old colony, and history is always history, right?
Well no, our view of history changes with the time. What 1960s historians read into the story of the USA is quite different from what is seen now, fifty years later. And different again from how earlier American academics saw their heritage. This book is an outstanding example of revisionist history where long held myths and beliefs are exploded and events are seen in a new light.
And, in this case, what a dark light it is. The growth of American greatness is depicted as being built on greed, self-interest, intolerance, violence and crime. The much revered founding fathers are shown as secretive, aristocratic in their outlook, and ready to resort to anything to preserve the power and wealth they had managed to accumulate. In this regard they were no different from their European contemporaries, both sides resorting to war, piracy, slavery, trade barriers and exploitation of the weak in defence of their own selfish interests. This was how the country began and how it went on, from the War of Independence up to the Vietnam War, the point at which the book ends. Whether this despicable state of affairs continues to the present day is a matter for other historians to assess.
The list of US political despotism is continuous and inexhaustible: support for Barbary pirates, restrictions of trade, slavery, determined resistance to expanding suffrage, repression of workers’ organisations, aggression and interference in other countries, all of this done to protect the interests of a small ruling class of the rich and powerful. Of course, human rights progressed over three centuries, but isn’t it significant that the land of the free was at the tail end of these advances and not in the vanguard?
But how does the author justify his damning verdict on America’s past? Unfortunately, not at all well. He makes his points through assertion rather than argument. His explanation of events is confusing: the kind of story you can only understand only if you already know it. All of this wrapped up in convoluted grammar and a vocabulary choice that can only be described as quaint, at least to modern British ears. It’s a shame. This book had a story to tell; I only wish it had been told better.
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