Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The 2013 Kline Online Book of the Year

For years, what would eventually become the 2013 Kline Online Book of the Year has sat on a bookshelf, half-read, in my home office. I had started to read it about a decade ago, when I thought I was going to write an academic history of US agricultural policy for my Master's thesis at Johns Hopkins University. Both the book, and the idea for the thesis, were disregarded in time. While I would move on to another topic for Johns Hopkins, I would come back to the book in question; somewhat ironically, it was the first book I read for pleasure after finishing the writing of my Masters thesis.

David M. Kennedy is not a writer of history for the masses. An emeritus history professor from Stanford University, he is the principle author of the seminal Advanced Placement American history textbook, The American Pageant. Perhaps you've read it? Perhaps not. But his tome Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War 1929-1945 is a book that is worth the investment of time and intellectual energy to read.

In the book's 900+ pages, Kennedy deftly handles perhaps the most profound 15 years of America's history, the time period covering The Great Depression and World War II. Freedom brings home the idea to a modern audience with no memory of the event that the Great Depression wasn't simply an economic downturn, deeper but similar to what occurred in this country in 2008, but instead was an all-encompassing catastrophe that required a fundamental shift in the way the average American thought about money, employment, democracy, capitalism, and their very lives.

For perhaps only the second time in American history, large segments of the U.S. population began to wonder if America could even survive as a republic. Americans worried that the growth in material consumption that had driven the Roaring Twenties had reached its terminus and that there was nothing but long-term decline in store for the American economy. Reading Freedom, the modern reader smiles to think that many thought at the time that the human race had reached an economic and technological summit, that all great things had already been achieved  and that as a result there was nowhere to go but down. The economic orderliness of European dictatorships like Benito Mussolini's Fascist Italy began to look promising to some Americans, and never had communism looked so good to so many Americans.

Any book about the Depression and World War II must by necessity also be a biography of Franklin Roosevelt, for his leadership is the one constant throughout this era of complete upheaval. Kennedy's book takes us in great detail through Roosevelt's various attempts at tackling the Depression, all of which failed for one reason or another. Despite Roosevelt's many bureaucratic creations, the Depression's utter persistence frustrated Roosevelt to no end, and the book compels the modern reader to understand the depth of the Depression.

Roosevelt's legacy lies not with programs like the National Recovery Administration, whose Blue Eagle proudly adorned Main Street shop windows across the country, but with the notion that the federal government should, and would, play an increasingly hands-on role in managing the national economy, which up to that point had been at the whim of Adam Smith's invisible hand, and the laissez faire doctrines of oligarchs like J.P. Morgan. Roosevelt introduced the idea that the stock market should be regulated, that investors should know the financial facts of publicly traded companies. Roosevelt's Agricultural Adjustment Act, although largely nullified by the Supreme Court, also laid the groundwork for a heavy federal hand in American agriculture that lasts to this day. None of these programs ended the Depression, but they, along with social security, are its most durable legacy.   

Much like the country at large in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Kennedy's book comes to life as he writes the story of the nation's awakening to the idea of another war in Europe. Roosevelt was artful in balancing the needs of European democracy (the United States would become the so-called "arsenal of democracy" before entering the fray) with domestic political considerations; Roosevelt took the country no farther than it was willing, for he acutely understood that alienating the nation would curb his war powers when he truly needed them.

Kennedy's descriptions of the invasion of Pearl Harbor, which take the reader into the cockpits of the Japanese Zeroes and the early morning beds of the Pearl Harbor Naval Base, warm the reader's blood in a way that few books of 900 pages can. The Freedom narrative also excels as the U.S. Navy takes to war on the seas of the Pacific, luring the pride of the Japanese Imperial Navy into a series of engagements that roundly favored American firepower; and to the island jungles of the Pacific, where adolescent Japanese boys shrieked their way towards face-to-face encounters with American Marines. For the modern reader, who might think World War II was a war of unmitigated and breezy American success, Kennedy's Freedom from Fear confirms in narrative color the real facts, that the American slog across the Pacific to reach the Japanese home islands and across Europe to strike at the heart of Naziism was brutal, and thoroughly worthy of modern study.

Roughly the first half of the book is focused entirely on the Depression, certainly a tough topic to cover in a way that does not bog down, but Kennedy manages it, and I frankly think Kennedy does a far superior job at the task than does Amity Shlaes in the much-heralded The Forgotten Man, which I also read this year. That is a fine piece of work, but I enjoyed Kennedy's book more. The second half, the war half as it were, is just incredible, benefiting as it does from the previous half establishing the national mood as we headed to war. As an obsessive reader of American history I enjoy all the books I read, but if I am to be honest, I can say that there aren't many 900 page books that are page-turners, the second half of Freedom from Fear is one of those books.

There is no doubt that the 2013 Kline Online Book of the Year is David Kennedy's Freedom from Fear. 

 2013 Honorable mentions:
Whose Names are Unknown Sanora Babb
Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of FDR  H.W. Brands
Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon Theodore H. White

Past winners:
2011: The Best and the Brightest David Halberstam
2012: The Fifties David Halberstam
2013: Freedom from Fear David M. Kennedy

No comments: