Blogs > HNN > David A. Johnson and Gary B. Nash, Review of William J. Bennett's "America: The Last Best Hope" (Thomas Nelson, 2007)

Dec 14, 2010 1:04 pm

David A. Johnson and Gary B. Nash, Review of William J. Bennett's "America: The Last Best Hope" (Thomas Nelson, 2007)

[David A. Johnson is Professor of History at Portland State University and Editor of the Pacific Historical Review. Gary B. Nash is Professor Emeritus at UCLA.]

Is this the kind of history students need?

William J. Bennett’s two-volume America: The Last Best Hope, is a brisk and readable survey of American history from Columbus to Reagan.  It is a story of great men—politicians, diplomats, and military figures, interspersed with occasional vignettes of individuals and events that Bennett seems to find edifying.  The arc of Bennett’s story—until the last four chapters, which cover the 1960s through the Reagan presidency—resembles nothing so much as the so-called consensus history of the 1950s.  There are unsurprising champions of the American consensus, the founders, Lincoln, TR, FDR, JFK, and Martin Luther King.  In Bennett’s telling, these, and lesser lights such as Grant, Truman, and Eisenhower, embodied the American themes of liberty, justice, equality, opportunity, and patriotism.  On occasion, he turns vehemently against figures such as William Lloyd Garrison, who are featured in most textbooks as fearless reformers.  For Bennett, Garrison, in his message of undying opposition to slavery, used language that was “insulting and degrading.”  Bennett concludes from the New Englander’s unbending campaign for universal freedom that Garrison “hated the Constitution.  He hated the Union.  At times, he seemed to hate America and his fellow Americans, too.” (I;285)

For Bennett, furthermore, the United States took a terribly wrong turn in the 1960s and 1970s.  In the three chapters that precede his closing encomium to “Reagan and Renewal,” radical students, Woodstock nihilists, abortion feminists, black radicals, and other miscreants undermined American verities.  The left’s pernicious spirit infected the Democratic party, leading to the grievous McGovern campaign and the catastrophic Carter presidency (II: 426).  There is a biographical slant here.  Bennett, a young liberal Democrat in the 1950s and 1960s, left the party in the 1980s, when he became an ardent convert to the Reagan movement and a neo-conservative zealot.  However, his residual regard for FDR, the New Deal, and his boyhood hero JFK, is everywhere in his treatment of the twentieth century, residing uncomfortably throughout the narrative and leading to scores of “yes, but” questions for the reader.

As Alan Wolfe pointed out in his Washington Post review of America: The Last Best Hope, “no new discoveries await the reader.”  The book is grounded in secondary sources.  But there is more to Bennett’s evidentiary base than his reliance on existing historical writing.  His chronicle of the years before the 1960s draws primarily on an older body of scholarship, such as Samuel Eliot Morison’s Oxford History of the American People and well-known books by Bruce Catton, Thomas Bailey, Hans Trefousse, Robert Beisner, and Martin Gilbert, among others.  In addition, Bennett draws heavily on bestselling academic and popular biographers such as David McCullough, John Keegan, John Steele Gordon, H.W. Brands, Michael Beschloss, and Geoffrey Perrett.  Once Bennett reaches the 1960s 1970s, and 1980s, however, the authorities on which the narrative depends narrow strikingly, mostly to conservative authors (many of whom, like Bennett, were once liberals or left radicals) such as Michael Barone, Ronald Radosh, John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, Norman Podhoretz, David Frum, and Dinesh D’Souza.

Almost entirely missing from Bennett’s sources are references to historical scholarship of the last generation, especially the transformative work that has redefined the very meaning of social, labor, and racial/ethnic history.  While this disregard is, at first glance, curious and surprising, it is in keeping with Bennett’s revisionist position that recent American historical scholarship, the product of the purported left academy, rests on the dark side of a Manichean divide between a purportedly “real” America and its radical nemeses.

One consequence of this anti-intellectualism is the stunning erasure from Bennett’s story of much of the racial and ethnic history that scholars have so painstakingly reconstructed since the 1960s.  The treatment of the first two centuries of American history are astoundingly barren.  Enslaved Africans who came to represent one-fifth of the population by 1775 warrant a single mention—of their presence in Virginia in the seventeenth century.  Students can assume they lived nowhere else, nor can a word be found on how they provided the backbone of the Southern economy and a lucrative source of income for Northern merchants.  In the American Revolution, they are nowhere present, either fighting with the Americans or—as in the case of most—fleeing to the British to gain the freedom offered under Dunmore’s Proclamation.  Such figures as Phillis Wheatley, Benjamin Banneker, and Richard Allen, founder of the AME Church, are missing in action  In the early nineteenth century, Gabriel’s rebellion, David Walker’s radical abolitionism, Denmark Vesey’s rebellion, and Sojourner Truth disappear from the record.  The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and the establishment of the hemisphere’s first black republic is passed over without a word. 

Native Americans fare little better. Students will never learn of the Spanish mission system that enclosed thousands of native people along the California coast because Spanish California does not in fact exist so far as this book is concerned. It is only relevant in the nineteenth century when westward-moving whites reach California. Nor do Native Americans make more than cameo appearances east of the Mississippi until the 1830s. The depopulation of native North America by dint of the ravaging effect of European-borne diseases is not part of the story of doughty white colonists carving out a land of freedom and opportunity. The Indian trade deserves no mention, though vital to the colonial economy. Nor do Indians have much to do with the recurrent wars waged by European powers for control of North America until they appear in the Seven Years War with no interests of their own to pursue except when they casually attach themselves to the English or French.  In the American Revolution, Native Americans, to judge by their absence, were of no interest to either the Americans or the British (though of course they were seen by both sides as key players in a drawn-out contest of arms).  Not even such a pivotal figue as Thayedenegea (Joseph Brant) has anything to do with the Revolution, nor will students read a word about how the peace treaty of 1783 affected the Indian nations ranging from the Iroquois to the Choctaw.  Students learn, then, that colonial America, and even Revolutionary America were simply white men’s affairs.

A few notable figures in African American history do appear after the 1830s.  Bennett offers sensitive portrayals of such figures as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Walter White, and, above all Martin Luther King, who stand as exemplars of reason and moderation in the pursuit of dignity, equality, and liberty.  America: The Last Best Hope condemns Jim Crow law, highlights the heroic leadership of Ida B. Wells against lynching, and covers the rise of Marcus Garvey and the Harlem Renaissance as consequences of African Americans’ northward migration in the 1920s.  W.E.B. Dubois, however, appears only briefly, first as a radical counterpoint to the “moderate” Booker T. Washington and, later, as a communist.  Bennett passes over Malcolm X (and King’s turn to the left in the months before his death).  Moreover, ordinary African Americans, as agents of their own fate through the thickets of postwar freedom, share cropping, debt peonage, and systematic disenfranchisement, receive no coverage.  And, jarringly, Bennett barely touches upon the historical experience of Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Mexican and Latina/Latino Americans.

If Native and African Americans are largely missing from this insistent story of white Americans, it is also insistently focused on males. Either Bennett is unaware of the mountainous women’s history that has emerged in the last half-century and how it has changed the understanding of the American past in a host of new ways, or he has deliberately chosen to ignore this seismic change. In the index to volume I, there are seventeen entries for women (six of which are to European queens). In volume II the count goes up, to sixty-eight, with an odd emphasis Hollywood “royalty.” Women never appear as part of the colonial economy, the colonial churches, or the colonial communities (except when Anne Hutchinson gets banished as a religious dissenter in Massachusetts). Women play no role in the American Revolution, nor do they figure in the textile mills that were central to the first industrialization of the country.  (In fact, Bennett does not treat the shift to factory work before the Civil War at all).  As for the centrality of women to antebellum reform movements, the student will have to be content with with ten lines (I: 281-82) devoted to the appearance of the fashionable “bloomers.”

Although Bennett refers to the Civil War as “A People’s Contest” (I: 323) the “people” to whom he refers do not, apparently, include women—Northern, Southern, white, or black, for none appear except for a brief mention of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s cabin, and a portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln as “emotional, extravagant, and unsteady,” a liability to her husband’s political fortunes (I: 330, 368-369).  The split between abolitionists and woman suffrage advocates in the 1860s Bennett does discuss, concluding that passage of the Fifteenth Amendment without a provision for women's suffrage was a necessity of the times, which “provided a logical basis for the eventual passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920” (I: 421).  That amendment, he argues, was accomplished because suffrage leaders “rejected the tactics of radicals within their movement” (II: 57).

In contrast, Bennett does treat at length the Equal Rights Amendment, although nowhere does he describe its content or intent.  Rather, he implicitly links it to the politics of abortion and the mobilization of conservatives led by Phyllis Schlafly, Paul Weyrich and the Free Congress Foundation, and the recently scandal-ridden Dr. James Dobson and Focus on the Family.  These, Bennett relates approvingly, rallied opponents of the ERA on the grounds that the amendment would bring women under the draft and force them into combat, strip away their rights to alimony and child support, require the “federal government and the states … to subsidize abortion-on-demand,” and allow “homosexuals [to] demand the right to marry” (II: 461).  Bennett praises Schlafly for her “organizing genius” and salutes her for not suffering “fools or feminists gladly,” but nowhere does he grasp a teachable moment about how the battle over the ERA and the rise of the movement led by Schlafly, Weyrich, Dobson and others continue to divide Americans. 

To the list of dismissals—those Americans in whom Bennett has no interest—one can add labor.  For Bennett, artisans, mariners, miners, and even agricultural laborers escape his attention for the first several centuries of American history.  Labor unions make their first appearance in the 1850s.  Industrial labor does not appear until after the Civil War, and labor activism is so thoroughly expunged that not until the crescendo of strikes and bloody conflict of the late 1880s and 1890s does the book venture into labor history (though laboring people’s grievances and agendas are largely left unexplained ).  Across the twentieth century labor, and then only organized labor, plays a bit role. Bennett mentions the service of laboring women—Rosie the Riveter—during World War II, but has nothing to say about their removal from factories and shops at the war’s end.  The AFL-CIO appears from time to time because of its leaders’ opposition to recognition of the Soviet Union, general anti-communist fervor, and support of the civil rights movement.  Bennett devotes four pages to the infiltration of Hollywood by communists in the 1940s and the heroic opposition of “some of Hollywood’s biggest names,” above all SAG President Ronald Reagan.  By the 1980s, however, organized labor loses its shine.  In the 1984 presidential race, Bennett writes, Democratic nominee Walter Mondale “mistakenly thought that the endorsements he was lining up—from the AFL-CIO and the powerful teachers’ union, the NEA—could substitute for real strength at the grassroots” (II: 498).

These lacunae produce more than a few distortions of the historical record.  For example, he believes the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 ended slavery in the Northwest Territory, though it continued for decades in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.  Bennett states that Republican President Hayes vetoed a Chinese exclusion law passed by Congress (I:438), that Republican President Chester Arthur followed suit (I: 440), and that it was Democratic President Grover Cleveland who signed it (I: 450).  While in the strictest terms these statements are accurate, Bennett’s narrative is, to put it mildly, misleading.  Hayes did veto the 1879 Fifteen Passenger Bill, although at the same time he held that “the present Chinese labor invasion … is pernicious and should be discouraged.”  (Miller, 190) In April, 1882 Arthur vetoed an exclusion act, but a month later he signed an amended version, the odious Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  What Cleveland signed was the Geary Act of 1893, which renewed the 1882 act for another ten years, at which time legislation signed by Theodore Roosevelt made Chinese exclusion permanent.  Bennett’s history implies that the impulse to prohibit Chinese immigration was resisted until the Cleveland administration.  This distorts the actual course of anti-Chinese legislation and the strength of anti-Chinese, and more generally anti-Asian, discrimination.  No less, it completely ignores the intensity and persistence with which Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans from all walks of life fought exclusion until it was rescinded during World War II.

Overall, Bennett’s brief treatment of immigration restates the 1950s consensus-assimilation version, which, notably, does not accord with his benefactors and political allies today.  He denounces nineteenth-century Chinese exclusion as well as the “unjust and restrictive immigration laws in the 1920s” (I: 450).  The book praises Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty as “an unparalleled example of what happens under freedom,” and he salutes the welcome received by millions of Vietnamese “boat people” (II: 449-450 ).  These views, of course, place Bennett on the wrong side of today’s conservative repudiation of the Fourteenth Amendment, clamor for arming the borders, and demand for deportation of reputedly illegal Mexicans and potential Muslim terrorists.  Beyond these slight mentions, however, readers will search in vain to discern Bennett’s thinking—and more importantly the historical guidance he thinks history might provide students and other citizens— about today’s immigration debates.  His long chapter on the Reagan presidency, while heavy on personal anecdotes and catchy asides—he was there, after all—fails even to mention the immigration legislation of the 1980s, much less Reagan’s dalliance throughout his political career with the latitudinarian idea of opening America’s borders. In fact, Mexican Americans do not appear at all in this book save one mention of Cesar Chavez, which in its entirety reads:  “Cesar Chavez, the Mexican-American leader of the California farm workers’ union, strongly asserted his profound religious beliefs against abortion” (II: 421).

Consider, also, Bennett’s treatment of the Great Depression and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.  On a first reading, he seems to accept the monetarist view, which he attributes to Milton Friedman, that FDR’s bank holiday contracted the money supply and choked off incipient recovery.  But this is partially surmise, drawn from ambivalent comments spaced 142 pages apart (II: 99, 241).  On the Depression’s end, Bennett’s view is represented by a single oblique remark:  “some scholars maintain that the Depression did not ‘really end until 1939-40, when America began to rearm’” (II: 99). In contrast, on the notoriously controversial claims of supply side adherents and Laffer curve enthusiasts, Bennett is a true believer without any doubts whatsoever (II: 482, 484).

On the two major wars of Bennett’s lifetime, Korea and Vietnam, America: The Last Best Hope is similarly ambivalent.  In summarizing the Korean settlement, Bennett resorts to the passive voice: “a negotiated settlement … would at least contain communism . … Needless to say, such a stance was deeply unpopular in his [Truman’s] time.” (II:305)  On Vietnam, Bennett seemingly endorses containment:  “it seemed a compelling theory,” he writes (II: 383, 411-412).  He denounces the critics of Nixon’s Vietnamization policy, but endorses the policy only through the faintest of praise (II: 411-414).  In short, Bennett himself offers no clear view about the virtue (or not) of the war, its strategic significance, or its geopolitical objectives.  On the other hand, he unambiguously paints LBJ as a coarse and self-pitying man and excoriates opponents of the war as dishonorable.

At the end, one is left with the question:  Why would someone like Diane Ravitch “recommend” America: The Last Best Hope to “parents, teachers, and school board members”?  It is a highly partisan history.  Bennett, a professional neoconservative Republican, presents American history as a seamless progression, materially and morally, from the eighteenth to the middle of the twentieth century, at which time the American consensus was derailed by the cultural and political radicalism of the so-called “Sixties Generation.”  For Bennett, the Reagan years marked a resurgence of true Americanism, even though in fact they did not mitigate, much less resolve, the so-called culture wars .

A small but revealing example of the distortions in which Bennett the partisan engages is found in his treatment of President Jimmy Carter’s energy policy and his April 18, 1977, speech on the oil crisis.  Bennett, whose contempt for Carter is ill-concealed, describes the speech as follows:  “Sitting in front of a fireplace, the president wore a cardigan sweater.  He warned that the United States would run out of oil by 1987 and that conservation measures were desperately needed” (II:461-462, emphasis added).  As it happens, Carter was wearing a suit and tie, and he spoke to the nation from his desk in the Oval Office.  No fireplace; no cardigan.  What Carter said that night was:  “World consumption of oil is still going up.  If it were possible to keep it rising during the 1970s and 1980s by 5 percent a year as it has in the past, we could use up all the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade.” (, emphasis added) There is a real difference between would and could, and it is unlikely that Bennett is unaware of it—as he must be aware that his paraphrase turns into an absurdity Carter’s attempt to dramatize the potential consequences of America’s dependence on foreign oil.  Bennett published his book in 2007, in the midst of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, no less, the George W. Bush administration’s implementation of a full throttle free market policy aimed at increasing domestic oil production.  The failure of the latter to narrow the gap between domestic production and consumption, and the failure of the Middle Eastern wars to bring stability to the global supply of oil, were as obvious in 2007 as they are today.  Surely Bennett was aware of this and should have been aware that Carter was issuing a warning that is more critical today than it was in 1980—regardless of the president’s arguably ham handed way of delivering the message.

Does Bennett really believe that there is no energy crisis confronting the United States?  Does he really believe that students need not understand the history of it, that free markets will—contrary to the evidence—magically erase the growing mismatch between domestic oil production and consumption?  Isn’t the capacity to honor the truth despite one’s partisan zeal and help readers think through dilemmas rooted in the past essential to the kind of history America’s students deserve?

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More Comments:

Lewis Bernstein - 1/18/2011

The pompous tone of the review makes me sad but is illustrative of way many of our colleagues approach our subject. When research historians abandon writing of popularized history they leave the road open to hacks like Zinn and Bennett. Having met both of them and read their books, I don't think there is a dime's worth of difference between them.

The rich tapestry of American history in its complexity highlighting our blatherskites, mountebanks, heroes/heroines and fools may be found in Walter A. McDougall's on-going popular survey of American history - 2 volumes so far: Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History 1585-1828 and Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877.

And, as an aside, History is not necessarily a feel good exercise.

Michael Reilly - 1/17/2011

I have read all three volumes of Dr. Bennett's history, and I loved them. There is great value in a readable and positive narrative of American history for young people. Since the 1960s, students have been told that America is a racist, homophobic, imperial, misogynistic oppressive nation that is entirely beholden to the military-industrial complex. Authors like Howard Zinn are routinely used in American classrooms (talk about leaving things out: how do you write a book about American history and fail to mention religion even one time?) Mr. Zinn also, quite famously, pointed out that there is no such thing as 'objective' history: every historian has biases. So Dr. Bennett's bias is to be proud of his country, and to focus on her achievements instead of her shadows. I am quite certain that American school children will learn all about how horrible their nation is as soon as they get to college.

The 'majority' history that so horrifies these two reviewers is seldom taught anymore. Their beloved oppression studies--women! slaves! Mexicans! the workers! gays! the disabled!--are quite normative in classrooms these days. Kids know more about Seneca Falls than they do about George Washington.

On a personal note, I've read both Zinn and Bennett side by side. Between the two of them, a person can actually figure out the complex and wonderful history of the United States. But, as a teacher, I can assure you that there just isn't enough time to cover everything.