Originally published on Daily Kos Dec 2, 2011
In the fall of 1965, I took a required course in American History. Yes, we were required, not to simply take a test, but to actually learn about our history in Illinois. I had the misfortune to be assigned to Mr. Waters’ class. At the time, he was in his 30s, I would guess, which meant that he might have served in the Armed Forces during the Korean War. Maybe.
He was one of those who would be comfortable at any modern day Tea Party, feeling that if he wrapped himself in an American flag he could hide his ignorance behind his dogma. And his sign would read: “America, right or wrong.”
Our greatest conflict arose in class one day when I had the temerity to suggest that the US federal tax code punished those who worked hard and made a lot of money by taxing them at a higher rate then everyone else. The top rate in those days was 70%. Mr Waters called me a Communist for my views. Yeah, a communist for expressing a sentiment of Ayn Rand. (He just glowered some weeks later when I did my required class presentation on the conditions on Native America Reservations to the music of Buffy St. Marie.)
My love of history did not arise from the influence of any special teacher in my high school days. The real spark was reading Gone With the Wind in the seventh grade, even though my well written book report received a D because GWTW was considered a “trashy” novel. It may have been, but it led me to Bruce Catton who did awaken a real thirst to understand our Civil War that eventually led to Douglas Southall Freeman.
But before Freeman, there was William Manchester.
It was during the 70s, while living in San Francisco that I stumbled upon William Manchester’sThe Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-1972. I devoured that huge work, with an incredible joy. This was history, not in black and white as so many histories are, concerned mostly with names, dates, and battles, but in full living Technicolor. A rainbow of information of what life was like.
It was from Manchester that I learned of the Bonus Expeditionary Force, and the response of General MacArthur, and the future President Eisenhower, who was his aide. As his only aide, Eisenhower’s desk was separated from the Army’s Chief of Staff by a single slatted door. Did you know that Eisenhower would draw trolley tokens down the hall of the Executive Office Building, to travel up Pennsylvania Ave to the Hill? I didn’t, and found the image fascinating.
This was history the way I only dreamt it could be: interesting and alive.
Throughout this wonderful volume are insights into what people were doing, how they were living during the 40 years between 1932 and 1972. It is by no means a true comprehensive history of this period, because even at 1300 pages, it is not long enough. But he does a masterful job of fleshing out these years, and peopling them with names that my generation will find familiar.
Walter Reuther, head of the UAW, who demanded that the big three auto makers increase wages while not increasing prices. “He didn’t get it, but he altered the concept of labor-management relations all the same.” Edward R Murrow gets an American Portrait as well, as does Norman Thomas, Benjamin Spock and a young Ralph Nader.
And each era gets a montage of pop culture that includes phrases from songs being sung, slogans and headlines of the age that help make it more immediate. And more like today.
Manchester spends the first quarter of the book on the Depression and the New Deal, showing how one led to the other in a time of desperate need. He illustrates just how close the United States was to a full scale revolution, with farmers blockading Sioux City, Iowa, refusing to sell milk, pouring it onto the highways, “taking up arms against a system that paid them two cents a quart for milk that distributors sold for eight cents in Sioux City.”
His discussion of the politics of the thirties is as alive as ours is today. Consider this passage
And over and over there were the cliches: That Man, That Fellow, trying to destroy the American way of life, you can’t spend your way out of a depression, our children’s children will be paying, half the people on relief are foreigners anyhow, cut the relief rolls and enlarge the police and let trouble come, John L. Lewis has a key to the back door of the White House, That Man’s smile has been grafted on his face by plastic surgeons, he has never earned a nickel in his life and just lives off his mother’s income, and he’s only a Jew anyway, descended from Dutch sheenies who changed their names, nothing but a New York kike. (An elaborate genealogy was worked out for this last, going back to a fictitious Colonel van Rosenfeld.)
There is some comfort to be found from the fact that we survived this era. The biggest difference between then and now is that it was the wealthy upper class members described by journalist Marquis W. Childs as the “2 percent” who were spewing this talk, not the politicians.
Someday people will read about how all of you teachers were expected to, and did, bring supplies into your classrooms paid for from your own, almost empty, pockets. And they will be shocked at your dedication, as I was, at the tales of the sacrifices teachers made in 1932.
The story of the Chicago schools was a great Depression epic. Rather than see 500,000 children remain on the streets, the teachers hitchhiked to work, endured “payless paydays” — by 1932 they had received checks in only five of the last thirteen months — and accepted city scrip to be redeemed after the Depression, even though Chicago bankers would not accept it. Somehow the city found money to invest in its forthcoming World’s Fair of 1933, when Sally Rand would gross $6,000 a week, but it turned a deaf ear to the Board of Education. A thousand teachers were dismissed outright. Those who remained taught on at immense personal sacrifice. Collectively the 1,400 teachers lost 759 homes. They borrowed $1,128,000 on their insurance policies and another $232,000 from loan sharks at annual rates of 42 percent, and although hungry themselves, fed 11,000 pupils out of their thin pocketbooks.
Even while drowning you in statistices, Manchester manages to illuminate the human story behind the numbers in the clear, sparse prose of a journalist.
Nuggets of history
…asked if fascism would come to America, Huey Long said, “Sure, but here it will be called anti-fascism.”
Of the Marines at the Chosin Resevoir in Korea:
And Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller told his regiment, “The enemy is in front of us, behind us, to the left of us, and to the right of us. They won’t escape this time.”
On the new era of numbers:
On July 1, 1963, the Post Office Department, while announcing an increase in first-class postage from four cents to five, sprang the zip code system on a stunned and resentful public. The triumph of the digits moved one step closer with the conversion of the White House telephone number from NAtional 8-1414 to 456-1414.
Of 1970 he writes:
As America entered the 1970s, the swing generation was in, or about to enter, its fifties, the age at which men begin to discover that the world they have loved is disintegrating. That year the impression carried special force, for there seemed to be an unusual number of reasons for feeling wronged, among them inflation, pollution, crime, the war, the stock market, the generation gap, immorality, riots, cyclamates, traffic, insulting bumper stickers and decals, strikes against the public, racism, and new skyjackings. Nothing worked as it once had. “Not only is there no God,” said Woody Allen, “but try getting a plumber on weekends.”
I want history to tell me more than what happened at any given time: I want it to tell me what life was like. I want to taste the food, hear the music, smell the smoke. I want to, from my armchair, visit with people that have been dead for hundreds of years. I want to know how they lived, what they learned and what they wore. What lullabies did they sing to their children? How did they prepare their meals, and what did they eat?
William Manchester filled this gap for a brief forty year segment. The main outlines, dates, names and battles I had studied or learned about elsewhere, but he made them all come alive for me and showed me how they led inexorably, from one to the other
More than all of this however, The Glory and the Dream taught me a fundamental truth about history. That it is now.
You see, I was involved in some of the episodes that were included in this book. I read some of the best sellers, saw some of the movies and sang some of the songs. And I saw the reality of history. It is what we do with our lives today that will determine the history that our children and our grandchildren learn. Which is a cliche only because it is true as is the fact that it is going to happen whether or not you are there to participate.
But history happens on multiple levels. Yes, the OWS movement is historic, but so is the latest Lady Gaga song. And the road your brother-in-law is working on. Or the vote you cast next year. Or don’t cast next year.
William Manchester changed the way I see history. No longer was it the story of famous people doing important things, it was instead a rich tapestry of many colored silks, that is still being woven today.