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Paradise Lost?

June 2024
21min read

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.


When Michael Elliott, who was born in Liverpool in 1947, first visited America in the early 1970s, he was deeply struck by the generosity, optimism, and confidence he found. Some twelve years later he returned as a reporter for the Economist and discovered a very different mood: All about him was talk of decline and a yearning for the years just after World War II, which, everyone seemed to think, represented what should be the normal state of things.


When Michael Elliott, who was born in Liverpool in 1947, first visited America in the early 1970s, he was deeply struck by the generosity, optimism, and confidence he found. Some twelve years later he returned as a reporter for the Economist and discovered a very different mood: All about him was talk of decline and a yearning for the years just after World War II, which, everyone seemed to think, represented what should be the normal state of things.

Elliott was intrigued. The more he thought about it, the more he came to believe the postwar decades were not so much a lost Eden as a historical anomaly. But what was the “normal” state of America, and where did we really stand in terms of our past? These big questions eventually coalesced into a book, The Day Before Yesterday , which takes a close look at the postwar years Elliott has come to call the golden age and puts them in what he sees as their proper historical context.

To his mind the country we live in today bears a powerful resemblance to the nation of a much earlier time—a century ago—and that’s both bad and good. Recently I talked with him about it in his home in Bronxville, New York, from which he now commutes to Manhattan to edit the international edition of Newsweek .

The very fact that you refer to the thirty-odd years after World War II as the golden age carries a hint of irony. But it was a good time, wasn’t it?

Sure it was. But it was also a very strange time in historical terms. When I started work on my book, I was trying to answer a personal question. I had first arrived here in 1974, straight out of graduate school in England, and I had been overwhelmed by the sense of American abundance—not just activity and energy but prosperity and confidence. After living here for a while, I went back to Britain. When I returned in the mid-1980s, it was clear to me that something had changed: There was a mood of concern and anxiety and loss. I was intrigued by this and surprised by it, and I tried to figure it out.

“In fact the America of the mid-1990s is the kind of place in which Americans had actually lived for most of their national history.”

I came to the conclusion that when I’d arrived for the first time, in 1974, at the end of twenty-five or thirty years of continuous and growing prosperity, I had encountered something beyond the expectations of anyone who had been young at the end of World War II—anyone anywhere. That prosperity had been allied with very strong social cohesion. This combination—the prosperity and the social cohesion—had disappeared by the time I came back. But those years had left Americans convinced not only that this was the way their society should be but that this was the way it had always been.

As I started to explore the period after 1945, I came to believe that wonderful though those years were, they were really very peculiar—and that in fact the America of the mid-1990s is the kind of place in which Americans had actually lived for most of their national history. The country today is messy, fragmented, and ragged at the edges, with lots of people who don’t speak English. There are real cleavages among social classes, races, regions, what have you, but, at the same time, there’s great vigor and a sense of get-up-and-go.

In particular I became intrigued by the similarities between our condition now and what existed before and immediately after World War I, in the Teddy Roosevelt—Taft period, when America was becoming the world’s premier economic power. The nation was then, as it is now, tremendously dynamic economically and innovative entrepreneurially, but it wasn’t an entirely comfortable place. That America also had very real and troubling divisions between regions, between social classes, and over mass immigration.

So I concluded that we had fallen into a big error (I say “we” because I live here now and am raising my family here). We had elevated the period after 1945 into a corrosive national myth. The error didn’t lie in thinking the golden age was a condition to which we should aspire but in thinking that the golden age was normal and that insofar as the country had changed, it was a catastrophic failure. I thought that if we understood our own history better, we could get over this obsession with a false benchmark and be much happier.

But how was the period after World War II so different? Not in terms of per capita GNP growth, was it? Or in productivity growth?

There have been plenty of periods in American history when GNP growth was similar to what it was in the 1950s and 1960s. The 1980s, if you measure in terms of GNP growth, was a very prosperous decade, as is the 1990s. What was novel about the postwar era was not only a sustained economic expansion that lasted for the better part of thirty years—which was unique in American history—but the social cohesion that accompanied it. Now, I suppose I have to respond to the predictable objections that center on one, McCarthyism and two, racial contention. Okay, this wasn’t a Utopia. But it was a period in which more Americans lived more like one another than ever before, because there was virtually no immigration. It was a period in which the population was much more evenly dispersed than it had ever been. It was a period in which there was a common external enemy, which has been rare in American history.

I’ve never argued that this was a placid time. Twenty-seven million people leave the farms and the cities and move to the suburbs, and there’s enormous demographic change; people move from one part of the country to another in huge numbers, first West and later South. White people move into the South; black people move out of the South. Something as simple as conscription is an extraordinary jolt to the system. Young men are yanked away from their family and friends for two years in a way that has never happened before in any sustained peacetime period. But almost everyone thinks of it as a relatively quiescent period, and it was—which suggests that sustained economic growth was one factor that provided the social cohesion that got the United States through a period that would otherwise have been extremely tumultuous. So the social changes and the economic changes were intimately linked.


You just mentioned the Army. Historians have argued that the European mass armies served as integrating institutions during the stresses of industrialization; the nineteenth-century French phrase was “The Army is the school of the nation.” Did compulsory military service have that effect in postwar America?

Absolutely. First of all, wartime has that effect. One of the great cultural clichés of World War II—and like all the best clichés, it is largely true—was that people from very different backgrounds were jumbled together. Armed forces aren’t democracies, but they can be melting pots, and the fact that nearly every young man served the colors in that period made for national cohesion, just as the wartime victories made for national pride. Both the pride and the mass army long outlasted the war itself, as did the melting.

Also, I am impressed every time I go back and look at the impact of the GI Bill in those years—not simply because it kicked the economy up to a completely different productive level by giving millions and millions of young men greater skills than they had had earlier, though it certainly did that, but also because it created an environment in which people from all kinds of social classes could for a few years enjoy the same experiences.

The creation of a new common culture was also the work of broadcast television, which became the great postwar mass cultural phenomenon, so that everyone watched “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners.” Add on top of all this a sense of external threat from international communism and the Soviet Union, and on top of that a virtual absence of any substantial immigration, and now you have the conditions under which unprecedented national cohesion can be expected to flower.

But if the greatest integrators in America are exactly what you say—television and the instruments of the mass culture—surely those are still with us. Many people think they’re homogenizing the culture more and more thoroughly.

There’s a big difference between television as it was in the 1950s, when three networks defined the agenda, whether it was social, cultural entertainment, comedy, or political, and the situation that we have now, where there is a plethora of electronic media voices, both within and beyond television. I remember watching a tape of a Rolling Stone interview with Michael Bloomfield, the great Chicago guitarist who played with Paul Butterfield, shortly before he died. He said, “We all listened to the radio; black kids in Chicago listened to the same radio station as white kids, so when Paul and I, white Jewish kids from the suburbs, went down to the South Side, we all knew what to do.” That’s inconceivable now. Today you couldn’t possibly create the conditions in which people have precisely the same cultural references. Some people would be listening to the radio in Spanish, some people would be listening to it in Chinese.

Are you sure? Marketing data show that gangsta rap is largely consumed by middle-class white adolescents in suburbs. Cultural homogenization is still going strong.

I don’t want to over-egg the pudding, as they would say in Britain. There are still extraordinarily strong common cultural reference points in America. But the current situation does put less pressure on minority cultures to assimilate.

What about people’s earnings? Did the golden age see a narrowing between wage levels?

That’s an extremely interesting question. Surprisingly little has been written on it, and the accurate story is hard to get. As far as I can judge, the period after 1945 was not marked by a squashing of income and wealth differences, but the rising tide really did lift all boats. Everyone had gotten richer at about the same rate. That’s important, I think, and it distinguishes that period from the 1980s. The eighties was an enormously successful decade economically for the United States, but it’s now generally acknowledged that income and wealth disparities have widened substantially in the last fifteen years. That was not true in the period after World War II. Before World War II, however, American income differentials were much wider than in the postwar decades.

“For most of American history up until FDR, the federal government was an occasional presence. It was there only during crises.”

In your golden age the highest-paid employee was likely to earn something like ten times the lowest-paid one, but the ratios were much much greater before 1940 and have again expanded. Do you think that narrowing helped produce cohesion?

Not in and of itself; more significant was the fact that everyone felt they were sharing in national prosperity, and this feeling was entirely rational. They were. Over the last ten or fifteen years I’ve come back time and time again to the Monongahela Valley in western Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh, which used to be lined with steel mills and now notoriously is not. The Valley has very rarely been a happy place, but its happiest period was in the 1950s, and not because people lived blissful lives—they had lousy jobs pouring a lot of molten metal into buckets—but in the 1950s their prosperity was increasing at about the same rate as in the fanciest neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.

You say that the traditional American experience has been one of regional division and tension, and this has returned. But the conventional wisdom has it that the main regional frictions in this century had to do with the anomalousness of the South, and now the South is more like the rest of the country than ever before.

In the late 1940s the South truly was another country; Jim Crow laws were actually being extended, as new legislation was passed to segregate airports. And plainly the civil rights revolution and air conditioning transformed the modern South. All that’s true. California, too, has become more like everywhere else. The West, which was very different, largely living off natural resources, now has the same kinds of jobs, the same kinds of schools, the same kinds of everything. All that’s true. The United States, though, does span a continent, and you want to be absolutely sure that you aren’t doing things to encourage schisms in a country that big. Look at something like welfare reform, at the gradual retreat of the federal government from much of domestic policy, and you’ll conclude that different states will run health, welfare, education, and medical policies in ways quite different from one another. That’s a break from the consensus established in the New Deal period and continued through the 1970s.

You’ve observed in your book that the national government simply wasn’t a terribly important part of American life for most of our history. All that changed in the 1930s, though if you looked at America in 1980, you’d have concluded that federalism was a dead word. Now this apparently irreversible trend really does seem to be reversing.

I feel that very keenly. This morning I was in my daughter’s school for a parent-teacher conference, and the teacher had behind her desk a chart of the Presidents. Now I think I’m a relatively serious reader of American history, but I found myself looking at the Presidents between Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and thinking, Who the hell are they? Wait a minute. Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Rutherford Hayes, who came first? I mean, for most of American history up until FDR, the federal government was an occasional presence. It was there only during crises, so there’s a good reason Chester Arthur doesn’t ring many bells: He didn’t matter very much.

Between 1932 and 1992, however, every presidential election took place against the backdrop of economic catastrophe, war hot or cold, or some kind of overwhelming social crisis, like the struggle for civil rights. For sixty years we believed that the federal government had to take the lead; it couldn’t leave the responsibility either to private action or to state and local governments. Well, in 1996, guess what? There was no such crisis, there was no such backdrop, and voter turnout levels fell to a rate not seen since the 1920s.

Everyone said, how terrible, so few people turning out for a presidential election. My reaction was, How predictable, because you’d have to go back to the 1920s to find a presidential election taking place in such a noncritical environment. I’m not very comfortable with this: I think that the virtues of local and state governments are constantly exaggerated by Americans, and I find peculiar at best the idea that Washington is a hellhole but Sacramento and Albany aren’t. But the fact is that the recent conventional political science of American government is obsolete; this is again becoming a true federal republic.

You also argue that class conflict in America has been a fairly common state of affairs, that this was sharply muted in the golden age and is again on the rise.

That’s probably been the most controversial bit of the whole book, the one that people have challenged most often. Let me see if I can restate it. I take it as a given that there were real, sharply felt, and occasionally violent cleavages between social classes in much of pre-1945 American history. Few Western European countries have a labor history as bloody as ours was up until 1945.


Now there are indicators that there are again sharp social cleavages in lifestyle and widening income disparity: Large numbers of people are not able to share in the benefits of the new economy. Now it’s true that hasn’t given rise to a political party that identifies with—to use a European phrase—the interests of the working class. Nor has there been any substantial labor militancy. Many people assure us that the unions are never going to be back in fashion, that this is an individualized society, an aspirational society, that people are never going to be motivated by envy the way they sometimes are in the European democracies. It just ain’t going to happen. And my response is, Well, I hope you’re right. But I’d hedge my bets.

But despite America’s violent labor movement, we’ve always had the least socialist working class in the history of the world.

Still, more and more people are living lives of sullen resentment. That resentment may not take the form of organized agitation for a change in political and social structures, but the fact is that in many times and places, including America, it has.

When this happened in our past, before the New Deal, we tended to get a weakening of the two-party system; we often had a two-and-a-half-party system. Do you think we’re seeing that again? Patrick Buchanan often sounds as if he’s speaking some thirdparty language of the 1930s. Is the stable postwar two-party rule weakening?

Yes, but I’d add this caveat: Since 1988 we have seen three very different kinds of third parties arise—Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition in 1988, Ross Perot in 1992, and Pat Buchanan in 1996; we have not had a single sustained third force that could give real shape to the perceived failure of our old two-party system.

You’ve pointed out that our immigration experience was very different in the golden age, when the influx was historically low, and that our current experience is much more like the American norm. Can the pot continue to melt?

Well, the jury is still out. Immigration built the United States, and I’m encouraged by the evidence that Hispanics are assimilating at pretty much the same rate that East Europeans did a century ago. But there are studies that lean the other way. To put it bluntly, the modern nativist really has to worry only about Mexicans. Not for more than one hundred years has a single country of origin produced such a large proportion of the immigrant population as Mexico does now, and Mexico is different, even to people who, like me, are convinced, broadly speaking, of the benefits of immigration. For one thing, Mexico is so close that it’s extremely easy for these immigrants to maintain ties with their country of origin. For another, many of them are living in a part of the world that was Mexico not that long ago. Even so, I think Mexican immigration to the United States is essentially like every other immigration to the United States. Mexican-Americans are assimilating and speaking English at the same rate as the Poles, Italians, and Irish did a century ago.

“The rise of the military into a vast permanent estate of the realm seems to me to be a genuine revolution in this society.”

There are respectable scholars who would argue that I’m much too optimistic, but then let’s take the focus off Mexican-Americans, because the rest is easy. Asian-Americans aren’t a problem, and the Russian émigrés who sell me bagels every day on Fifty-seventh Street in New York City aren’t either. The girls who give me smoked fish at Bagel Baron are two months off the boat from St. Petersburg, and they’ve become American in no time flat. It’s an astonishing testimony to the continuing strength of the desire to be American, which means you speak English.

You write of Tocqueville’s praise for volunteerism as making up for a lack of social density and government strength in America, and you’re tentative about whether that aspect of pre-golden-age America is on the way back or not.

This is a question that has been much discussed in the last few years. I would align myself more on the “there’s nothing to worry about” side than I would on the “there is a massive decline in social capital because we’re all bowling alone” side. People argue that some voluntary organizations which were strong in the 1950s and 1960s are much weaker now, and that things like television encourage us all to stay home. Here I think it really helps to be a semi-outsider. I’m still struck by the richness and variety of community organizations in the United States. The one that I often think about is neighborhood soccer leagues, which didn’t even exist fifteen years ago and hence don’t show up in any of the statistics about community organizations. Where we’re sitting and talking, in Westchester County, neighborhood soccer leagues are an extraordinarily rich and quites ophisticated way for people to provide their own social networks. So I’m optimistic that Americans can still create new forms of voluntary association, even if some of the forms that were once very strong have indeed weakened.

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?

One of the things that people tended to say about America before the golden age is that we were a genuinely self-reliant society. With the big exception of Civil War pensions, America was not a welfare state. Do you see the privatization of pensions, the decreasing provision of medical care as part of labor contracts, and so on as a return to the economic individualism of an earlier America?

I do, and I think that people aren’t terribly comfortable with it and don’t really appreciate the extent of it. The 401 (k) is an astonishing thing, embodying a very substantial change in the way in which people are expected to provide for their old age: Here’s some money; do it yourself. There has been a substantial rolling back of what a European would call the American welfare state—meaning state-mandated economic protection of the citizen, not aid to the hard-core unemployed. People do want to be economic individualists, but I think a lot of this rollback has been done by stealth, and people don’t realize what’s happened. When they find out, they are sometimes annoyed and surprised—by the practices of some HMOs, for example.

Let’s talk about race in America, before the golden age, during it, and now. The golden age was the heyday of the civil rights movement; now immigration is making black Americans into a smaller and smaller percentage of the American population.

I’m surprised how little has been written about this. Before and during the golden age, describing race in America was very easy: It was white and black. That’s gone now, and the consequence seems to me to have been very little noticed: The special position of black America is disappearing. When there was only one important minority in this country, the situation of black Americans had appalling aspects and also hopeful ones, because the reaction to those appalling aspects was to try to do something about them. Now black America has lost that specialness, and it’ll lose it even more in the next fifty years.

I think black Americans have been astonishingly tolerant of immigration over the last twenty years; I’m not sure I would have been if I’d been a black American. And in America fifty years hence, the largest minority group will be Hispanics, and there will be a very large and very economically successful society of Asian-Americans. What will the nature of the black American experience be like? That’s an uncomfortable question. There was a very interesting piece in the paper a few months ago about how the now-famous Johnny Huang asked for a political meeting with Joe Kennedy, I think, on the Hill, representing a bunch of Asian-American banks, and he didn’t want the Community Banking Act to apply to them. Translation: They didn’t want to loan to blacks. That’s a twenty-first-century American issue right there.

The flip side of the coin is that the position of black Americans has improved astonishingly over the last forty or fifty years. Two out of three black Americans now lead lives that in most important ways are the same as white Americans’, though you would not easily guess this from reading the press.

“I think it has taken a long time, but that sense is actually filtering through to the American public too, the sense that life isn’t too bad.”

From the 1880s to 1929 Americans had an increasing sense of national power, and in the golden age that power seemed unprecedented. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s we seemed to fear that our power was shrinking. Now what’s happening?

The situation has changed very quickly. I started on my book during the 1992 elections, and that’s just what the 1992 election was about: Two of the three candidates, Clinton and Perot, ran on a platform that the country was going to hell. Well, George Bush wasn’t a dreadful President, he wasn’t presiding over a particularly bad economy, and he had just won a war; but somehow he looked like a little kid trying to stick his finger in the dike, because everybody knew the country was going to hell in a hand basket. That was still true in 1994, but it isn’t now. The indicators, the tracking polls—do you feel good, do you feel bad, is the country on the right track, is the country on the wrong track?—have been changing dramatically over the last couple of years. There’s also a sense of awe in the rest of the world at what America has managed to do. I think it has taken a long time, but that sense is actually filtering through to the American public too, the sense that life isn’t too bad.

But things change. There will be other periods when Americans worry about their nation’s power, and though the nation’s anxiety and insecurity are not what they were in the early 1990s, its optimism and confidence are not what they were in the 1950s either. We haven’t, by any stretch of the imagination, gone back to the conviction that anything is possible, which typified the late 1950s and early 1960s—nor should we, because conditions are different. In many ways the contest with the Soviets was extremely productive—not just in building freeways, which were a national-defense program,and not just in the immense investment in scientific education but also in the kind of rhetoric that Martin Luther King used to such great effect: “ We are engaged in a great struggle with people who are not free.” The Cold War found its way into all kinds of unexpected nooks and crannies of American life.

So far every effort to re-create that Manichaean vigor in the wake of the Soviet collapse has failed. It failed with Japan because there is a real difference between tradables and shootables, and it will fail with China unless and until there is a real military threat. People know there’s a difference between losing your soft toy industry to Chinese factories and losing the flower of your youth on a battlefield.

There’s quite a difference between losing your soft toy industry and losing your automobile industry, too, which is what Americans have been scared about for a long time. And the Chinese appear to be much more likely to get into a shooting war with us than the Russians were; we have a latent but dangerous territorial dispute over Taiwan.

There is a possibility that the twenty-first century will see real rivalry—and perhaps even more—between the United States and China. But I find it highly unlikely that China will ever become the kind of threat that the Soviet Union was. I think America will spend the first decades of the next century with as sunny a national security situation as we had exactly a century ago.

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