Free Life 23, August 1995, A History of 20th Century America, Reviewed by Sean Gabb

From Free Life, Issue 23, August 1995
ISSN: 0260 5112

Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-41
Michael E. Parrish
W.W. Norton & Co, New York and London, 1994, 529 pp., US$12.99 (pbk)
(ISBN 0 393 31134 1)

This is a work of great industry, though but modest competence. Perhaps seeking a place on the high school reading lists, or – more likely – to keep his job, its author goes to the most extreme lengths to avoid giving offence to anyone but conservatives. The result is a dull history, and in many cases an inaccurate one.

This is a shame, for the history of America between the two Wars is deeply interesting. It is at once an example and a warning. It shows what amazing progress can be achieved within an almost unfettered market economy. The lesson of Victorian Britain was that the masses could raise themselves to respectability; of interwar America, that they could rise to affluence. This was the first age of the cinema, the wireless, the motor car, of synthetic materials and the vitamin pill. During the long boom of the 1920s, average incomes increased by 30 per cent in nominal terms, and by far more in real terms, as taxes were reduced and the prices of food and all the new consumer goods drifted down.

But there was also the Federal Government, which now definitely became the worm in the American bud. Following the conventional view, Mr Parrish is hard on the Republicans for not socialising the economy. Their tax and spending cuts, and their unwillingness to use the regulatory powers inherited from the Theodore Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson years, are denounced as callousness to the poor. Oddly enough, he is nowhere near so hard on them for their efforts to enforce Prohibition. This was as nasty and absurd a policy as was ever tried in a civilised country. By comparison, even our modern "war on drugs" is a model of sane restraint.

But the real villain, as we all know, was not Calvin Coolidge, with his belief in the moral rectitude of capitalism: it was Franklin Roosevelt – who, quite predictably, is the hero of Mr Parrish's narrative. Of course, there is no understanding here of why the Great Depression came about. We are told much about the Wall Street Crash, and something about industrial and agricultural "overproduction". We are even told a little about high tariffs and the odd international finance of the day. But while they are mentioned, no effort is made to connect the Depression with the artificially low interest rates that prolonged the boom through the late 1920s.

Ignorant, then, of why the economy collapsed in 1930, Mr Parrish is unable to see how the New Deal kept it bumping along the bottom all through the 1930s. In Great Britain, there was some protection and some regulation. But there was none of the continual meddling – and threats of further meddling – that kept business confidence low in America. Nor did the Conservatives gut the British Constitution as the Democrats did the American. The British economy came out the of the Depression in 1934, and grew very nicely during the next five years; and might have grown very nicely indeed in the 1940s, but for the folly of another war with Germany. It was only war and inflation that put America back to work, and let the next generation see the New Deal as anything but an unmitigated disaster. It is frankly amazing that Mr Parrish can still see Roosevelt in the same rosy light as he was viewed during the 30 years after his death. Viewed from today, his achievement looks increasingly like the disaster that his conservative critics said it was at time. These critics are seldom mentioned by name, and are invariably dismissed as reactionary obstructors.

I notice at least one silly mistake of fact in the book. On p.461, there is a photograph allegedly of Neville Chamberlain. It looks suspiciously to me like one of Anthony Eden.

Otherwise, the balance of the history is generally wrong even in cultural matters. For example, in the discussion of Hollywood, we read long analyses of films like The Grapes of Wrath and Mr Smith Goes to Washington – films that depressed almost everyone who watched them at the time, and that are now only enjoyed by the kind of people who read The Washington Post or The Guardian. Yet Gone With the Wind – easily the greatest of all films – is mentioned just in passing; and westerns are nearly ignored.

The history of these years has been covered by many good and interesting accounts. This is not one of them.

David Gibbon (Sean Gabb)

© 1995 – 2017, seangabb.

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