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17 October 2018

America, the ongoing experiment

History shows that the US has often been far nobler than many of the politicians chosen to guide it.

By Simon Winchester

The index of Jill Lepore’s monumental new single-volume history of the United States runs to 43 pages and contains 5,456 entries. The first of these is for something called the “ABC list”. And since by convenient coincidence this rather obscure list is something I actually knew a little about (whereas of the second entry, the members of a tribe of native Americans in Maine known as the Abenakis, I was shamefully ignorant), I thought it would be interesting to see whether Lepore, a wildly popular Harvard historian and magazine writer, had managed, deep down in the devil-details of her 933-page book, to get it right.

The ABC list, a thing of no little notoriety at the time, was a dossier of extreme dodginess. It was compiled by the FBI in 1939 when FDR’s highly suspicious White House was seized of a sudden need to classify west coast residents of Japanese ethnicity according to their perceived threat to the serenity of the nation – those in Class A supposedly being the most dangerous, C the most benign. The document would later form the basis of the policy by which an eventual 120,000 of such people – citizens mostly, innocents all – were arrested and thrown into remote and lonely concentration camps for the duration of the Second World War, in one of the more shameful episodes of recent American history.

So, a quick riffle through to page 494 and there, as promised, is J Edgar Hoover’s perniciously racist list, following which are three pages (on one of which is a fine Dorothea Lange photograph of desolate Japanese Americans) devoted to the pitiless mechanics of Roosevelt’s incarceration policy. And it is heartening to be able to report that for this one obscure episode, plucked almost at random from within a five-century-long history, every single one of the details – the names, the dates, the legal challenges, the consequences – Lepore got quite right, and moreover wrote about them with elegance and judicious aplomb.

These Truths is a crucial work for presenting a fresh and clear-sighted narrative of the entire story, Columbus soup to Trump nuts, of what is at present a most terribly troubled nation. The underlying premise of the book is based on a single elegant question, posed in 1787 by Alexander Hamilton: of “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force”.

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There have been more than a few moments in the last two centuries, moments racked by crisis and scandal, incompetence and insurgency, which have competed to test that capability. All of them, from the Trail of Tears to the Twin Towers, from White Power to Watergate, appear, exciting and page-turningly fascinating, in one of those rare history books that can be read with pleasure for its sheer narrative energy.

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One of the greatest tests of the young nation’s sturdiness, of course, came during the four melancholy years of civil war from 1861 to 1865. Three quarters of a million Americans died in the more than 200 battles fought between North and South. And this is all covered, in terms of literature and style, near-perfectly: “They died in heaps; they were buried in pits.”

Only near-perfectly, however. Here, as in occasional moments elsewhere, Lepore’s literary exuberance rather gets away from her, albeit forgivably. She writes, for instance, that this was “a new kind of war, with giant armies wielding unstoppable machines, as if monsters with scales of steel had been let loose on the land to maul and maraud…” Not quite. The tank – which, unless I am missing something, she is surely describing – would not be introduced en masse until Cambrai, 50 years later. Only the Gatling gun and the Minié ball – a potent, conical spinning bullet – came as new additions for the Civil War armourers: what made this conflict so unusually dreadful was the fact that medicine had not advanced its ability to heal as fast as new weaponry had advanced its ability to maim. Wounded men suppurated to death in the mud. But returning to the Hamilton theme: there are not a few worriers today asking whether the present unseemly state of Washington is trying the stability of the union yet again, testing its capability of making “good government”, and giving in to the pressures of “accident or force”.

Not since Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, these Cassandras say, has the country been more divided. Passions are rising daily, as if pumped by steam that is stoked by the fires of the internet. I write this the day after the elevation to the Supreme Court of the decidedly unlovely Brett Kavanaugh, and in reaction to his appointment the country is at virtual war with itself, wild with passion. With so much volatility in the public square: the clearly demarcated battle-lines, blaringly intemperate voices on the airwaves whipping up even greater fervour, and a president seeming by turns to cajole and to toss red meat to the writhing and – as we have seen all too often in recent years – frighteningly well-armed masses, it seems entirely possible that virtual war could turn, in some of the more rancid locations, into something horribly real.

Which is why a book placing all that went before into some kind of calming context is not simply necessary but, given the passions of the present, well-nigh essential. The participants in today’s drama need to be reacquainted with the “truths” of the book’s title – of Jefferson’s carefully thought-out and sedulously worded (if now well-worn) declaration that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In the ugly morass of today’s political discourse the ideals that are based upon these simple principles are at risk of being either forgotten or dismissed: it is surely the duty of the country’s public intellectuals to offer caution, to warn, to remind.

Lepore is in the vanguard of this intellectual movement, seemingly unafraid, uncowed by correctness; she is no virtue-signaller, and is decidedly not a pessimist, despite the present state of the nation. She accepts that there is a great deal of anguish and hypocrisy in her country’s past. But there is also, she continues, “an extraordinary amount of decency and hope, of prosperity and ambition, and much, especially, of invention and beauty”. It is this superabundance of goodness in America’s history, and what many see as more than occasional appearances of decency in her present, that keeps newcomers like me here, aware but hopeful. Aware, of course, that hope is a commodity more easily available to a white man than to all too many others.


I came here from England, first in 1962, when the country was just three-quarters the age she is now. I explored, hitch-hiking relentlessly for six straight months, covering by my estimate 30,000 miles. I entered the country through the town of Blaine, in Washington state, with 200 crisp US dollars in my wallet. I left half a year later by way of Presque Isle, Maine, with 182 of those dollars left. So kind were the Americans I met during the odyssey that I only spent $18 in six months. The memory of that wellspring of generosity and decency – offered to a white youngster, yes – is something engraved deep within me now.

Today I am a citizen, and I hold an elected position, that of Town Moderator, in the tiny village of Sandisfield, in far western Massachusetts. Eight hundred people live here, among scenery of low mountains and rushing streams, all woodland and glacial lakes. It is, especially at this fall foliage time of year, astonishingly beautiful. Brigadoon, visitors call it. There is abundant wildlife: moose, mountain lions, coyotes, raccoons. We saw a black bear climbing one of our apple trees today, during breakfast. It has been unusually warm: the last of the hummingbirds has only just flown away for the winter.

The people – farmers, carpenters, singers, masons, writers – cling to a form of government unchanged in centuries, and one which is well recorded and lauded in Lepore’s pages. Democracy at its most basic survives here in the tradition of the Town Meeting. Once a year in May, all interested voters gather to debate and possibly approve the decisions required by the local government.

It is usually about how we spend the town’s money. The policeman, for example (there is only one) needs a new cruiser (we said hold on for another year). The asphalt on the newly repaired bridge over the Clam River needs refreshing (write to the contractor, we decided, saying we townsfolk won’t pay). With winter approaching we now need to buy a new snow plough (approved, no matter what it costs).

I have a gavel, a lawyer and a constable when I moderate the meetings; seldom do I bang the gavel, never have I asked the officer to intervene. All debate is courteous and reasonably calm. The town essentially runs itself, as it has, in this imperfect but generally civilised manner, since 1762. Democracy here is very old, older than the United States itself. It is a survivor. “Decency and hope” are watchwords in this corner of New England: the bluster and braggadocio of elsewhere stays well away.

But we live in a bubble. The inhabitants of elsewhere are running the country now, and those few historians who dare to contextualise the madness of the moment – if madness it is – are well worth listening to. As Lepore writes, and does so in a way that manages to seem non-platitudinous:

The American experiment is not ended. A nation born in revolution will forever struggle against chaos. A nation founded on universal rights will wrestle against the forces of particularism. A nation that toppled a hierarchy of birth only to erect a hierarchy of wealth will never know tranquillity. A nation of immigrants cannot close its borders. And a nation born in contradiction, liberty in a land of slavery, sovereignty in a land of conquest, will fight, forever, over the meaning of its history.

And we have been here, or very near here, before. The final entry in the index is for “Zwicker, Ralph”. The small role that this near-forgotten figure played in America’s recent history serves to remind us that demagoguery and brutalism are never far from the surface in so chaotic a country. It is illustrative to explain.

Ralph Zwicker was a major general in the US army, a decorated war hero with a chest brilliant with medals and polychrome ribbons – from Britain, France, Russia and the US, all attesting to extraordinary conduct on the battlefield. In 1954 he commanded a vitally important base near New York City, and it happened that one of his junior officers, an army dentist with what were called “leftist leanings”, fell foul of the virulently anti-communist senator Joseph McCarthy.

McCarthy, ever eager for publicity for his witch-hunting crusade, hauled the poor man before his committee and, failing to get straight answers, demanded that General Zwicker be recalled from a job in Japan to explain why his subordinate was being so evasive. At the hearing, which was televised, Zwicker cut a figure of immense military dignity, a singular contrast to the shambling, slurred and ill-dressed senator. And in answer to a rambling accusatory question, the soldier refused to explain. McCarthy went ballistic. The general – Purple Hearts and Silver Stars notwithstanding – was in his view “a disgrace to the army”, and “didn’t have the brains of a five-year-old child”. Familiar stuff today, to those who read the Twitter feed from the White House – but in 1954, an outrage.

It proved the beginning of the end for McCarthy, the start of a long slow decline for McCarthyism. Within a month CBS television had presented a take-down, demonstrating with withering economy, as Lepore writes, “the cruelty of the man, his moral shabbiness and pettiness, his brutality”. The army itself then held hearings, televised too, and which led to the famous exchange between McCarthy and the aged and frail chief counsel Joseph Welch who, after one of the senator’s wearying tirades demanded, plaintively, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

The American public, who had watched it all on blurred black-and-white television sets, suddenly saw that there was indeed not a shred of goodness about McCarthy, and turned on him, as one. The senate censured him, prompting President Eisenhower to remark when all was done that McCarthyism has now turned into McCarthywasm. The former senator took his leave and to drink. He was dead, three years later, of liver failure. He is remembered, but not missed.

America, a great experiment still very much in progress, is often far nobler and more decent than the politicians it selects to direct its fortunes. Reading between the lines of Lepore’s refreshing history, it seems clear that the overall optimism she displays is justified. The underlying story of the tyrants and despots who all too often people this republic’s story is, mercifully, generally one of transience, and then of the eventual triumph of American good sense. For those who currently despair, she seems to say: this too shall pass.

Simon Winchester’s most recent book is “Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World” (William Collins)

These Truths: A History of the United States
Jill Lepore
W W Norton, 933pp, £30​