Title: The Glory and the Dream
Author: William Manchester
Manchester, William. The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972. Boston: Little, Brown and Company
Date Updated: June 26, 2015
William Manchester bookends this sprawling, epic US history with two protests in the heart of Washington. He opens in 1930 at the rise of the Great Depression, with veterans across from the White House coldly shunned by President Herbert Hoover when asking for advance relief from the Great Depression, then brutally attacked by troops and national guardsmen led by Douglas MacArthur. He concludes with President Richard Nixon’s second inaugural in 1973 at Watergate’s rising, Vietnam demonstrators audible blocks away amidst calls for national unity and self-reliance.
In between, across 1300 pages, (excluding index and exhaustive bibliography) The Glory and the Dream chronicles the American Century’s meatiest, most eventful years (1932-72). Manchester details a diary for and about what he called the “swing generation” but whom ex-NBC-TV anchorman Tom Brokaw (who cited Manchester as an influence) christened “the Greatest Generation.”
These men and women endured and thrived through what, against Manchester’s narrative, seemed (except for the relatively tranquil late 1950s) a non-stop whirlwind of hardship. Painting in broad strokes by economic numbers Manchester reveals compelling pictures of the Depression, bank and crop failures, Franklin Roosevelt’s election and the New Deal, World War II, and the Korean and Cold Wars. He also includes near month by month chronicles and analysis on America’s roots and involvement in the Vietnam War and Watergate, which takes up most of the book’s final third. And of course, he addresses the still-shocking days of rage, murder, and decaying social fabric in the late 1960s.
Manchester’s storytelling is expertly paced, foreshadowing careers of 20th century icons like Nixon, JFK, Marilyn Monroe and even the Edsel. He traces their steps to the national stage and devotes personal “Portrait of An American” sections to many (including Dr. Benjamin Spock, Edward R Murrow, and Ralph Nader). He does this deftly balancing international, social, and economic views of day to day life, worked, and socialized, even addressing political and social extremists (50s beatniks, 60s hippies, John Birchers). Isolationist vs. internationalist foreign policy views, themes as recent as Iraq election, pops up throughout the book; virulent opposition to FDR’s war mobilization leads to the opposition to the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan. Vietnam’s civil war slowly creeps across several administrations beginning with Dwight Eisenhower’s, reaching the heart of American experience as the decade and book close.
Anyone knowing or having lived through part of the last half-century can reference America’s seismic events at a high level. To Manchester’s credit he reached deeper into the causes behind pop culture and historical touchstones like Nixon’s “Checkers” speech, 1968’s Vietnam My Lai massacre, the oft-overlooked 1936 hurricane crushing New England (and ineffective warnings against it), and Japan’s 1937 sinking of the USS Panay which foreshadowed Pearl Harbor. He draws dimensional character studies amidst the era’s scandals (the fall of Eisenhower right hand man Sherman Adams as one example). He allows you to understand personalities and issues behind history’s strongest feuds: President Harry Truman against union leader John Lewis (or MacArthur, or Joseph McCarthy…), between Southern governors and other leadership against Dr. Martin Luther King, the Freedom Riders, the Kennedy administration, and finally against the Black Panthers’ vicious 1960s anarchy. Finally, he chronicles the “silent majority” generation gap between Nixon/Agnew’s divisive, reactionary leadership team and a generation’s angry youth.
Before his death, Manchester wrote whole volumes on major figures included here (Winston Churchill, MacArthur, JFK). But given the relatively short time each is presented (except for FDR, who dominates the book’s first half ), Manchester masterfully retells individual personal style, social time, major accomplishments, blunders, and closure to their lives and histories. The Glory and the Dream is filled with protests after violent counter protests (which Manchester respects even when he does not agree), well-drawn, memorable characters more remarkable for being real life characters, and insightful side comments on issues like the role of the vice-presidency and American tolerance of dissent.
At its publication, Manchester himself called The Glory and the Dream the culmination of his career, and for once it was not hyperbole. Anyone wishing to understand American character must start here; The Glory and the Dream is the finest history-based book I’ve ever read, and one of the finest in any genre.