Restless Giant

By James T. Patterson

Restless Giant is the last installment in the five-volume Oxford History of the United States, a series that has proven to be a surprising critical and commercial success.

After bringing the story up to the 2000 election, Patterson – also the author of the History’s previous volume, Grand Expectations – “labored over drafts of an epilogue” that would have explored the impact of September 11, 2001. He decided to drop it because of the lack of a “reliable historical perspective.” This raises an interesting point. When does history acquire a perspective? When does that perspective become “reliable”? Questions like these are relevant to a discussion of Restless Giant because it deals with a period that falls within the personal memory of most of its readers. In a way, this makes it more complex. The facts, which should be easier to ascertain, are more difficult to pin down. Instead, the historian has to sift through a sea of perspectives, many of which are unreliable but all of which are a part of the history being described. The so-called “Culture Wars”, to take one example, were less a historical event than a perspective on those events. And so what happened becomes less important than the interpretation of what happened. The history of the United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore was a media-saturated period of ideology-building, myth-making, talking heads and conspiracy theories. And I’m not sure we have a reliable historical perspective on it yet.

With so much partisan bickering, especially in the political arena, there are two ways to approach the subject. The first is to have a master-thesis that you present with Olympian detachment. The second is to strive to be “fair and balanced,” presenting both sides of the story in the hopes that the reader will be able to detect a truth that (no doubt) falls somewhere in-between.

Patterson has chosen the latter approach, as the blurbs of acclaim on the back cover testify. His book is “a marvel of . . . fairmindedness,” “fluent and judicious” with “an admirable sense of balance.” In case we miss it we also get a blurb for Grand Expectations complimenting him on his “fair, judicious . . . synthesis.” This, we can be sure, is a consensus historian.

Except for the fact that there is no consensus. There is just “on the one hand this, but on the other that,” with no final agreement or resolution either way. Fair and balanced becomes not only an attitude toward one’s material, but a narrative style. In a discussion of pop culture, for example, the text goes like this (about four pages of text, condensed):

Commercial/economic realities were among the “potent reasons” for television’s “race to the bottom” BUT producers defended themselves by saying that they were just giving the people what they wanted AND other “defenders of television” pointed out that no one was forcing anyone to watch lousy television shows AND there were still many institutions of high culture available as well as some quality programming on TV. BUT, was violence on TV and film leading to a rise in violent behavior in the US? “This was surely difficult to prove,” but “remains doubtful.” It was “equally debatable” whether TV had declined that much over time. BUT “still, the crassness of TV and other manifestations of American popular culture in the 1990s understandably distressed many people.” AND studies showed that fewer people were reading. Of course “there was no doubting that the display of sex in popular culture in the 1990s had become pervasive and graphic,” BUT whether this affected behavior was also “regularly disputed.” After all, teen pregnancy was going down. STILL, “sex did seem to be virtually ever-present on the tube.”

Fair and balanced? Maybe. But what is it saying? Patterson doesn’t seem to have any kind of point.

I would go further and say that the main problem with this kind of attitude is that the truth isn’t fair or balanced or judicious. It is either one thing or another. There is, for example, no such thing as a “fair and balanced” examination of global warming or the correctness of the theory of evolution (to take a couple of current manufactured “debates”). In striving to maintain a judicious middle-ground, as in the discussion of sex and violence on TV, Patterson just ends up seeming wishy-washy. He’s quick to provide all kinds of numbers pulled from the Statistical Abstract to suggest an empirical foundation, but beyond that he’s lost in a fog of non-controversial, “judicious” fudge. The results can also be perfectly astounding for what they don’t say. My jaw nearly hit the top of my desk when I read the following:

This was the deteriorating state of Soviet-American relations on December 27, 1979, when the USSR launched an invasion of Afghanistan. Why it did so was unclear. Some experts said that the Kremlin sought mainly to preserve a pro-Soviet government threatened by rebels. Others speculated darkly that the USSR had designs on the oil-rich Persian Gulf region. Whatever the motivation . . .

Again with the back-and-forth between “some said this, others that.” But in the end the Kremlin’s motivations remain unclear.

Unclear? Were their motivations unclear to Zbigniew Brzezinski, the man most often credited with provoking the invasion? Patterson doesn’t mention American involvement in Afghanistan as having anything at all to do with the invasion. In fact he doesn’t even mention the fact that the US was in Afghanistan stirring up those “rebels” and giving them weapons.

Apparently this is the new model for the writing of contemporary history. A fair and balanced approach that provides consensus where there is none by eschewing any attempt at getting at the truth and retailing inoffensive, content-free public utterances on the subject. Here is the line on the American invasion of Iraq from a new, critically acclaimed account (The Assassin’s Gate by George Packer): “Why did the United States invade Iraq? It still isn’t possible to be sure.”

Perhaps it had “something to do with September 11.” But who knows. The Russians invade and occupy Afghanistan, the US invades and occupies Iraq. Who can tell how or why these things happen? They just do. You figure it out.

I’m not trying to advance any kind of anti-US perspective on American foreign policy during these years. I’m just saying that when a historian refuses to even acknowledge what are well-documented facts whenever they might seem too negative for the home team you start to get the feeling that what you are reading is just spin. To take another example:

After the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, Clinton authorized retaliatory cruise missile attacks on a suspected Al Qaeda guerrila site in Afghanistan and on a pharmaceuticals plant in Sudan that was believed to be manufacturing chemical weapons.

Full stop. That’s what gets in the official history. What it doesn’t mention is that there was little evidence that the al-Shifa plant was manufacturing chemical weapons, and that the general consensus today is that it wasn’t. It was, however, the country’s major source of pharmaceuticals and veterinary medicine and its destruction probably led to several tens of thousands of deaths. No mention of that. No mention of it anywhere. Not even in a footnote. Though we do get this two pages further on: “The Clinton administration’s attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998, provoking greater rage from bin Laden and his fellow radicals, were of dubious utility.”

And that’s it. No explanation of the Sudan attack being a mistake, or any of its disastrous consequences. In fact, the clear implication from these two passages – that the missile attacks were “retaliatory” in nature and that they provoked the rage of Al Qaeda – is that, while the strike on the pharmaceuticals plant was of dubious utility, it was probably the right thing to do.

This is history?

Not really. It’s more a neutral sampling of non-historical interpretations and op-ed-style commentaries from the period. Indeed it’s hard to see where Patterson has done any original research at all. I was surprised to find even newspaper columns being sourced to books they are quoted in. And what’s worse is the quality of the secondary sources he references, many of which aren’t rich on original research either. One can maybe excuse the number of footnotes to pop-political books like The Presidential Difference and The Rise of the Vulcans, but it’s hard to understand why Patterson felt any need to quote from the amateur political commentary of New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani, or such a “useful survey of the 1970s” as David Frum’s mélange of bile, misinformation, and stark ignorance, How We Got Here. Things have come to a pretty pass indeed when these are primary sources for the Oxford History of the United States.

It might not be quite as bad as “garbage in, garbage out,” but Restless Giant definitely has trouble rising above this material. The result is mainly just a tepid, uncertain, typo-littered, and wandering overview of the years from Watergate to Bush v. Gore. Even Patterson’s main thesis – that Americans during the period enjoyed better, healthier, wealthier lives but felt less satisfied with their lot, angrier, and more anxious about the future – simply states an often-observed condition that the rest of the book fails entirely to explain.

America may have ended the twentieth century on a high note, but Restless Giant makes for a disappointing conclusion to its history.

Review first published online January 24, 2006.