Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Mad Historian's Athenaeum, Vol. 1, No. 18

Patterson, James T. Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. xiii + 448 ppg.

            Out of all of the Oxford History of the United States volumes to date, this one is the least successful. I do not think that is the fault of the author, but rather the material itself. I am writing this review ten years after publication of the book, and quite a bit of relevant information has emerged on the Reagan years alone to alter the content of this volume. That is the problem with writing about recent history. The shortness of the volume also indicates this as well. It is easily the shortest volume in the series which reflects the information available to the author. 

            Patterson’s previous entry in this series, Grand Expectations was a masterpiece. I use it in my classes because it is well researched and provides a vivid account of the years in question. In contrast to that, I cannot use Restless Giant to the extent of the aforementioned book. This is not to say Restless Giant is a bad book. It is quite good. The fault lies in my own expectations. The fact that I lived during this time period may also be part of the issue because my own memories clash with the history, but this is not uncommon in modern history. Individual perspectives color our views of history we experience.

            In any event, the book is actually a good read. Patterson was unable to dig deep into material or unwilling, but the effect is a surface scan of the last quarter of the 20th century. For students looking for a beginning point this book suffices. Many of the sources are useful and can point the way to additional materials. The work also serves as a good template for what occurred while leaving it up to the scholars to do deeper studies. 

            It really would not surprise me to see this volume expanded upon or even replaced twenty years from now as more information comes to light or is declassified. That is really one of the biggest problems in studying recent history, especially political, diplomatic, and military history. Far more documents are classified these days than ever before and in many cases will not be declassified until many years have passed. This is a huge disadvantage for recent history advocates because many of the people they could develop information on or with will pass away before their role or roles come to light.

            While this book is useful, it has limits. The events since 2000 have seen a major recession, war, massive social change, and a hardening of the culture wars into two opposing groups. Many of these events have their roots in the 20th century. The end of the Cold War alone is worthy of a book. The Reagan years have recently been closely examined in substantial volumes. This book is the predecessor to those volumes.

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