A sweeping intellectual history that will make us rethink postwar politics and culture, When America Was Great profiles the thinkers and writers who crafted a new American liberal tradition in a conservative era -- from historians Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and C. Vann Woodward, to economist John Kenneth Galbraith and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
A compelling tale that will redefine the word liberal for a new generation, Mattson retraces the intellectual journey of these towering figures. They served in the Second World War. They opposed communism but also wanted to make America's poor visible to the affluent society. Contrary to those who characterize liberals as naive or sentimental bleeding hearts, they had a tough-minded and nuanced vision that stressed both human limitations and hope. They felt America should stand for something more than just a strong economy.
Time was, in the antediluvian years before Reagan, that "liberal" was a handle a fighting man could cop to. Its devaluation into the much-maligned "L word," writes the author, owes as much to left as right. There's not much new in those observations or in the others Mattson (History/Ohio Univ.) makes here, which amounts to a quite readable survey of the golden age of America's policy-oriented public intellectuals: men (and a men's club it was) such as Arthur Schlesinger, Archibald MacLeish, Bernard De Voto, and John Kenneth Galbraith. They cut their teeth on WWII, when they found themselves playing influential roles in outfits like the Office of War Information (from which one memo sternly reprimanded Hollywood for its racist portrayal of Japanese soldiers: "This is not a racial war") and the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, which taught Schlesinger, for one, that American power needed to be projected into the world. After the war, working through messengers such as the New York Post (now anything but liberal) and various journals of opinion, they offered close analyses of government policy and promoted social service and responsibility: thus their rejection of consumer culture for giving "priority to private satisfaction while denigrating public life." Their opinions were so diverse, writes Mattson, that their ideas of what constituted a "realistic" foreign policy could allow both for America's taking the lead in otherwise untrustworthy international organizations and for its taking pains to build international alliances-an ambivalence that played out in what has been called (unfairly, the author argues) the "liberals' war," Vietnam, but more recently in Iraq as well. Without playing the counterfactual card too explicitly, the author suggests that the world might have a much different shape today had the increasingly liberal-leaning JFK not been killed; then, perhaps, the New Left would not have turned against the Old Left, liberal anticommunism might have prevailed, and Reagan might not have arisen to call liberals bad names. A slight work about a bygone era, but with lessons to offer for our own time. (Kirkus Reviews)