Just the fact that H.W. Brands attempts to make sense of recent American and world history should earn him accolades. I think he comes as close as anyone can to accomplishing that goal in less than 400 pages.
It’s an extreme overview, but that worked well for me since I read it as research for the 1940s-80s. Many parts were emotional to read, especially the 1960s. These days that time period is romanticized for its hippies and music, yet it was also a time of deep dissension and division. Heroes were gunned down too often. We can’t help but wonder what the world might be like now if people like Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy hadn’t been killed. Those deaths caused a lot of people to retract from the world in a way, or to simply give up. Brands shows this and ties it in well with the history that follows.
It was fun to read about the more recent history that I remember living through like the Cold War and the destruction of the Berlin Wall. The 9/11 tragedy was another emotional event to read about as history. Brands seems to be pretty objective through most of the book, which is always tough to do when discussing politics. At one point, he mentions that President Obama was elected for economic reasons. Dreamer that I am, I believe he was elected for peace.
Near the end, Brands states that an odd inversion in the nature of American dreams occurred between 1945 and the present day. He says, “The dreams of 1945 had been collectively ambitious but individually modest; those of 2010 were collectively modest but individually ambitious.”
While that may be true overall, it’s also very sad whenever a back is turned on the world in favor of individual pursuits. As history continues and the world faces more environmental challenges, I hope we’ll learn that we all share this one world and that we need to take better care of it and each other.