Non-Fiction Review: Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974

Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe 
Rosenbergs, H-bomb, Sugar Ray, Panmunjom
Brando, "The King and I" and "The Catcher in the Rye" 
Eisenhower, vaccine, England's got a new queen
Marciano, Liberace, Santayana goodbye
- Billy Joel, "We Didn't Start the Fire"




It's a bit of an odd experience reading a history book and having it reach the period where I'm alive... My memories of the 1970s are pretty fuzzy, especially the first part of the decade, what with me being concerned with things like being born and learning how to use the toilet.

In getting a game set in the late 1950s ready I decided to do a little bit of research. Given I enjoy history, James Patterson's Grand Expectations was already on my to-read list. Grand Expectations covers the period from the end of World War II in 1945 to 1974 as the economy began tanking after an unbelievable run.

During the three decades covered here the United States went through some fundamental changes. Patterson takes the reader through the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon presidencies (ending with Watergate). Though the focus is not on the presidents, they do command a great deal of attention, as do the many civil rights leaders, radicals, and other major players of the era. None of the presidents gets a perfect evaluation but none are entirely demonized either. Every president in this period made some cringeworthy decisions as well as some decisions which greatly advanced the United States. Nixon is probably the least regarded of the presidents in this work, though Patterson nevertheless points out how Nixon actually expanded on a number of the social programs initiated by Johnson as well as launching such programs as the EPA.

A consistent theme of the book is a constant referring to its title - the United States experienced amazing growth after World War 2, leading to many grand expectations. The US economy took off and continued to grow for nearly thirty years. It explains how politicians found little problem in paying for new social programs. Things which were once luxuries became expected. In race relations, a century after the end of the Civil War many aspects of legalized racial segregation and discrimination were overcome, though not without pain and death.

Given the breath of topics during this period, Patterson does not go into incredible amounts of detail, though major events like the Korean and Vietnam Wars do get a fair amount of attention as does the Civil Rights Movement. One thing I liked is he endeavored to remind the reader as to perspective - the number and percentages of students who became activists of some form, the number of young men who were drafted, etc. Going by movies one would thing everyone of college age spent the 60s on an acid trip while they protested the Vietnam War. Patterson reminds us that while such students were vocal, they nevertheless represented a minority.

One thing that really sticks with me is the image of Johnson constantly obsessing in the middle of the night about casualty reports and sneaking out with the Secret Service to pray at St. Dominic's Catholic Church. It does seem appropriate that a president feel the impact of the lives lost in war and this does go against the image of the "Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?" that I brought into this book.

I'd definitely recommend this as an excellent overview of a period of massive change in the United States. So long as repeated use of the phrase "grand expectations" will not drive you somewhat insane...

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