- Historic Sites
Have Americans slid backward since the sunny, prosperous years after World War II, as so many feel? To find out, an English-born historian compares our recent past with earlier times, and in the process learns something about our likely course into the next century.
February/March 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 1
How else do you think the American future is going to be like the American past? Do you see a rise in religiousness?
Americans are by international standards still extraordinarily religious, but I don’t think they’re quite as religious as they think they are, and I doubt that there’s any return to the kind of faith that the great mass of Americans once had. In fact, I have not seen anything in the figures that indicates that there has been any substantial religious revival in the United States in the last ten or fifteen years. We know that there has been a very substantial change in the political climate of those who label themselves as religious, but that’s not at all the same as saying there’s been a religious revival. In fact, I think if you look at data of regular churchgoing, it’s actually been flat as a pancake. America is certainly not going back to a situation where communities that were closely identified with the Catholic Church were taking the lead from a parish priest who was himself taking his lead from the bishop and the Holy Father. Similarly, we won’t go back to a Victorian world in which a woman’s place is in the home—but in fact that wasn’t the case in America at the turn of the century anyway. One of the fascinating things about the decades before World War I is what a period of vast new opportunities for women it was. For instance, the percentage of women undergraduates at the University of Chicago in 1902, around 50 percent, is astonishing. Opportunities for women were not invented out of nothing in 1968.
People talk a lot about the new economic globalization, but the American economy was genuinely international before 1914, much more than in the postwar decades. Is globalization another return to the past?
Absolutely. It is a great and misunderstood fact that globalization is a return to normal for the American economy. Between 1890 or so and 1914, America was the world’s biggest trading economy except for Britain. A very large proportion of the economy was either imports or exports. There were massive direct investments, which dwarf the level of foreign investment you see now. It simply happened to be British money rather than Japanese. Arthur Conan Doyle’s books are always dotted with American businessmen in London. A figure worth considering in this light is Herbert Hoover. It’s impossible in 1997 to think of a public man so “international.” From the time he graduated from Stanford until he became Commerce Secretary, Hoover lived his whole life outside the United States. He had an office in San Francisco, but his headquarters were in London, with branch offices in Shanghai and St. Petersburg and various other places. He was respected all over the world, was offered a cabinet post by the British wartime cabinet, rescued Polish schoolchildren, ran the relief of Belgium. Everything he did was outside the United States. Then he came home and immediately became Commerce Secretary and then President. There’s no American public figure in our age, in which the economy is said to be so international, who has had anything like that international experience. And as far as I can tell, no one held it against Hoover. The fact that he was such a man of the world was not in any way a political disadvantage in the 1920s.
Until 1940 America had one of the smallest standing armies in the world. Is the huge American military also an aberration of the golden age?
It’s aberrant, but I think it’s likely to stay. I can’t see how we can return to the old days. In the early 1930s—the last time the United States was as wholly at peace as it is now—the defense budget in 1990 dollars was eleven billion; it’s now roughly two hundred and fifty or sixty billion. Now if you say, “Well, the price of weapons has gone up more than the general price level in the economy, let’s double it,” we’d still be spending less than 10 percent of the current figure. Well, the world’s a very different place. Let’s double it again, and the U.S. defense budget would be forty-four billion. Okay, let’s double it yet again, just for luck, and we’re still at little more than a third of the current figure. So that’s a very substantial change. The rise of the military into a vast permanent estate of the realm, which would have astonished Teddy Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson, seems to me to be a genuine revolution in this society.
But the military’s share of the budget is less now than in 1960, when it was a quarter of all government expenditure, and considering, say, the Chinese, Iraqi, and Iranian governments, it’s hard to say we’re as thoroughly at peace as we were in 1930. However, here’s a paradox: We are thinking less and less internationally, compared with the golden age, even though our relative power has increased sharply.
Yes, and I’m not really sure how to explain that. It’s perfectly rational for Americans to switch on the evening news and hope they don’t see long reports on politics in Moscow, because, after all, Russian ICBMs are not pointed at Chicago anymore. And if you don’t consider the internationalization of the economy, or the soft contacts that come through immigration, or the scientific and technological and cultural links that increasingly bind Americans to places abroad, you may get a misleading sense that America is unaware of the international arena.
All that said, though, isn’t it curious that at a period when the United States is singularly unthreatened by any other power, when it has a monopoly on all the military hardware that really counts, the armed forces should be as revered and as almost untouchable as they are?