With the health care debate taking center stage in American politics right now, I figured a good book to read up on would have to be something about America. As I asked around my family for such a book, one book repeatedly was recommended to me: America, the Last Best Hope. Technically, it’s two books, the first covering American history from its founding to right before World War I, and the second covering World War I to right before the fall of the Soviet Union. And while it certainly met the high expectations I had of it, it wasn’t what I was expecting at all. Since I borrowed the second book, this review will only cover that material.
Let’s get something out of the way real fast. I had been familiar with this book for a while now, but was a bit skeptical about reading it at first. I saw the subtitle, “The Last Best Hope”, and was afraid the book would have a macho, America-is-better-than-all-else tone about it. Thankfully, this was not the case. The book is actually a pretty sober look at American history that can be summed up in a single word: safe.
The book is basically an updated version of the American history textbook you were taught from in high school. There’s no maps, but unlike the Hitler and Mao books, you don’t really need them since the various parts of the world covered are done in a very broad fashion (that is, only just capital cities are typically mentioned). It’s an excellent read, and covers pretty much everything you would expect from a history textbook. All the presidents in that time period are covered as well as most of the hot issues (the civil rights movement and important legislation / judicial decisions).
What is interesting about the book is what it doesn’t talk about. Since the book is like an official story of the U.S., it really only talks about the failures and dealings of the U.S. that we don’t feel too bad talking about. As an example, the Bay of Pigs incident is covered, but there is no mention of the War on Drugs anywhere in the book. Furthermore, while the book does talk about Iran-Contra and Grenada, it curiously leaves out the various attempts (successful and otherwise) by the U.S. to remove foreign leaders from office. It talks about the Soviets in Afghanistan, but doesn’t mention at all how we armed the Mujahideen or Osama bin Laden’s interactions with them.
Furthermore, the book perpetuates the notion that FDR and Churchill were the best of friends and that their relationship was something truly special. The book and TV series, World War II: Behind Closed Doors, reveals the true extent of their relationship as well as their dealings with Stalin based on new information gleamed from Russian archives. While Bennett claims that the failure of the Soviets to help the Poles in 1944 against the Germans “was the first crack in Allied wartime unity” (page 235), WWII: Behind Closed Doors shows us that the relationship was never firm, and that tensions were high at all times. It shows us that FDR was trying to establish a relationship with Stalin behind Churchill’s back and promised Stalin he would open a second front in Europe in 1942. Once he delayed it to 1943, Stalin was furious and felt betrayed by his new ally (only to feel the same again when FDR and Churchill moved the date to 1944, D-Day). Bennett never mentions any of this and only states that we had promised to open a second front in 1944 and did so prompty. This should be forgiven though, since the information contradicting Bennett is extremely recent (the WWII: BCD TV mini-series just came out a few months ago while Bennett’s book came out much longer ago).
However, you wouldn’t think that something like that incident (constantly pushing back when the Second Front would be opened) would be that big a deal to Stalin from reading this book. He does tell us that the Russians put a lot into the war, but since the book is about America (and not the Soviet Union), you don’t really get the impression that the Russians really did a whole lot in WWII. Bennett does talk about Stalingrad and the Volga briefly, but does nothing to paint the picture of desperation and cruelty on the Eastern Front and boasts of how the U.S. had more women in uniform than the Soviets did, despite the fact that women in the Soviet Union were on the front lines and had elite female-only units, whereas the women in the U.S. largely filled in the roles the men at home left behind (see this great podcast for more info on that). Here’s a quote from the book that I think summarizes this sentiment exactly (page 265):
To the war-weary peoples of the world, the lessons of the war should have settled forever the question of whether free people can also summon the will and the courage to defend themselves. It was the United States and Britain that held out. The United States and Britain defended the ideals of democracy to a watching world.
From statements like this, you would have no idea that the British and American casualties in WWII summed up to 800,000 versus the Soviet casualties of 27,000,000 (numbers cited from the WWII: BCD TV series). You would suspect from this that the Russians were amateurs in war that were saved by the U.S. and not that the U.S. only really got involved in the Western Front once they saw the push of Communism coming from the Eastern Front.
Although the book has its flaws, you should buy it anyway. It gets almost everything right and the WWII stuff is mostly in agreement with WWII: BCD (just a few exceptions asides from the ones mentioned earlier), and is a definitive work on American history. It shows a lot of the good and the bad of America, and while you’ll need other books to complement the things about America Bennett leaves out, it is definitely a page-turner and a worthwhile read.
Let’s end with a brief discussion of the book’s subtitle: The Last Best Hope. Bennett tells us that he makes the case for America as the last best hope throughout the book, and that the book goes “from a world at war to the triumph of freedom”. But I didn’t really get the impression from reading about the sketchy decisions we’ve made over the years that we really are a better hope than anyone else, and since the book ends before the fall of the Soviet Union, that we really had ended at “the triumph of freedom”. Once we take into account the things Bennett has left out of this book and our actions in WWII via WWII:BCD, I’m definitely not convinced that we are “the best hope”. This statement I think says a lot since as a kid I fell in love with the specifics of how our government was laid out but am just finding out that how the government works as it is written is shockingly different from how it acts. Of course this realization has been hitting me for years, but when you find a good thing (like how I was taught the government works), you get a bit attached to it. But that’s enough of that for now. We’ll come back to this point as we look over later books.