Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Mad Historian's Athenaeum, Vol. 1, No. 16

Kennedy, David M. Freedom From Fear: The American People in the Depression and War, 1929-1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. xviii + 936 ppg.

            This is an outstanding contribution to the Oxford History of the United States series. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this volume covers the period of American history from 1929 to 1945, which was a tremendous test of will for the American people. Caught in the grip of the worst financial depression in modern history and then propelled into the maelstrom of World War II, the people of the United States found themselves challenged to survive amid these threats. David Kennedy addresses these ideas and explains how the very idea of American democracy was confronted by these crises. For him, the Depression was more than just a financial crisis. It was an ordeal endured by a people who sought for a way to alleviate the suffering they experienced.

            From the east coast to west coast, Kennedy provides a stark look at the American landscape in the web of the Great Depression. He details the inability of the federal government to adapt to the problem as well as the argument among its leaders as to what the role of the federal government should be during the crisis. I found this section of the book to be quite useful to use in explaining to my class just how bad the Depression was for ordinary people. I couple this with the letters and observations of Lorena Hickok who was sent out to record what was happening to the American people by Harry Hopkins. It creates a very real and haunting image for the students as well as gives them a deeper understanding of just how bad the Depression was.

            The section on WWII is short, but aren’t all synopsis views of the period too short? There is just no way Kennedy can cover the war in great detail. He focuses more on the political aspects of the conflict which is interesting in its own right. The actual war overseas didn’t change the country as much as what occurred on the home front in order to support the war effort did. He also explores the international politics involved in the conflict which would shape the world that emerged from the debris of the devastation wrought by the nations during the war. Some readers might be disappointed by this, but there is just no way to go into great detail on all aspects of the conflict. Kennedy does not ignore the war, but keeps the focus on the themes that drive the overall theses of the volume.

            I found the book to be a good overview of the time period. It incorporates social, economic, political, diplomatic, and cultural histories while also touching upon race, gender, class issues that were important issues in our history. These issues were not created in this period, but were heavily affected by the Depression and war which led to quantum shifts in how they were perceived. It is important to understand how events shaped things that would culminate in the feminist and civil rights movements that came after WWII. I use several chapters from the book in my class to give students a feel for what was occurring during this time. The short nature of the chapters and the focus given to primary sources makes this a feasible solution to assigning readings to them. The book is definitely a good addition to my library and is a very good source when I teach this era.

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